A Traveler in the Foreign Service: where paid time off is taken seriously

After a long weekend, have you ever thought- ‘if only every work week lasted only four days?’ Flex time and four 10-hour day work weeks are becoming more common, but most of us are still stuck working at least five days a week.

I wouldn’t advise joining the Foreign Service solely because you want more vacation time and travel opportunities, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that these are two of the biggest perks of this career choice. Consider the benefits.

I’m talking long weekends, baby

Most Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) serve between 50-75% of their careers at embassies and consulates overseas where both local and U.S. holidays are observed. This means double the long weekends, or more in some festive locales. There are 10 U.S. federal holidays this year and some countries have even more. For example, the U.S. embassies in Sarajevo, Port of Spain and Port Louis will be closed for a total of 22 holidays in 2012. Bangkok has 21, and in Athens, Lisbon, Colombo, Berlin, Rome and New Delhi there are 20.

The Christmas season is a joy to behold in Orthodox countries thanks to the fact that the Orthodox, bless them, celebrate Christmas in early January. During the five weekend stretch between Christmas and MLK day, embassy employees this year had 4 long weekends.

Obviously many other posts have fewer holidays and in some of the more holiday-crazy countries, the embassy doesn’t actually close for every holiday due to U.S. government restrictions, which are intended to ensure that FSO’s spent at least some time at work each year.

In some fun-loving countries, the government will declare holidays as a spur-of-the-moment treat to boost their popularity. The pretext can sometimes be flimsy- the national handball team placed third in an obscure competition, or perhaps the country’s second favorite poet just croaked and everyone needs an enjoyable long weekend at the beach to grieve. In some developing countries, there may be no pretext at all, just, ‘screw it, we’re not working on Monday.’ But only a truly skillful U.S. Ambassador will find a way to close the embassy for spontaneously declared holidays.Any way you slice it, the benefits are great, but before you rush off to sign up for the Foreign Service Exam, I should mention that congressional delegations (CODELS) are prone to killing FSOs’ long weekends. FSO’s that are posted to places tourists want to visit can count on at least a few CODELS each year during long holiday weekends.

Why? Well, it certainly isn’t because Representative Cletus Bumblescrew and his trophy wife want a junket in Paris during their long weekend. Oh no, it’s because their constituents want them to know much more about the French trade union leaders and opposition politicians they’ll meet in between shopping trips and visits to the Eiffel Tower.

But wait, there’s more

In addition to the holidays, FSO’s get annual leave as well. For those with 3 years government experience or less, it’s 13 workdays per year; employees with 3-15 years service get 20 days; and employees with more than 15 years get 26 workdays per year.

Another nice benefit for the travel addicted is home leave. After the conclusion of each overseas tour, FSO’s get home leave, which accrues at a rate of 15 workdays per year, giving (in theory) FSO’s a very nice 6 week break at the end of a two-year tour and a very sweet 9 week holiday at the conclusion of a 3 year tour. Home leave is actually mandated by Congress and the intention is to hopefully help Americans who might have gone native overseas to re-acquaint themselves with American culture, and spend time with family members.

The State Department pays to send FSO’s and their families back to the U.S., but in reality, there is no one making sure they spend their time eating apple pies, attending baseball games and watching Judge Judy stateside. So if they want to hit Copacabana Beach in Rio, they’re pretty much free to do so. And here’s the really fun part: you can set up your home leave address pretty much wherever you want in the 50 states. FSO’s are supposed to designate an address where they have the most ties, but I know people who simply used the addresses of friends or relatives in Hawaii, because that’s where they wanted to spend their home leave time.

Now Cletus and his wife can’t take away home leave, but an annoying boss can. Many FSO’s don’t end up getting anywhere near as much home leave as they’re entitled to because their next post always wants them to arrive yesterday. Like many things in the Foreign Service, it’s all about how much values their career prospects. An FSO that really values travel and spending time with their family can usually take all or most of their home leave. But if they want the big promotions, they think twice about maxing out on it.

A look at vacation time around the world

In my opinion, FSO’s deserve all the leave time they get. In fact, I find it very odd that even in an election year when politicians promise voters the sun, moon and stars, none seem to advocate more vacation time for Americans. The U.S. is the only industrialized country with no government mandated paid vacation and Americans tend to take fewer vacation days compared to the rest of the world. Here are the statutory minimum vacation requirements in a variety of countries, according to a CNBC report in 2009.

30 days- Finland, Brazil, France
28 days- Russia, Lithuania, United Kingdom
26 days- Poland
25 days- Greece, Denmark, Austria
20 days- Switzerland, New Zealand
19 days- S. Korea
15 days- Taiwan
14 days- Hong Kong, Singapore
12 days- India (thought they have a whopping 16 public holidays)
10 days- Canada, China

Those figures are what’s required by law, but according to a 2009 Expedia survey, some workers taken even more time off. The French average a staggering 38 days; the Brazilians 34; the Swedes 32, the Germans 27; the Australians 19. And the Americans? A paltry 13 days.

With the American economy still a mess, no serious politician is about to propose government mandated vacation time, but I’m not sure that more leisure would hurt the economy. Think about it- when do you spend the most? Certainly not while you’re at work. 70% of the U.S. G.D.P. is based upon consumer spending, so more time off certainly wouldn’t hurt on that score. It’s not likely to happen, so in the meantime, if you want to party like the rest of the world, think about joining the Foreign Service.

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Image via cdedbdme on Flickr.