BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Oh, how lovely it is this weekend to be Argentine — able to take a mini-vacation to the mountains or the sea, or simply relax at home for three days, blissfully enjoying yet another new government benefit: More paid national holidays this year than nearly every other country in the world.
Thousands of Argentines began spilling out of the capital Friday night to make the most of the long weekend, which congress approved just three weeks ago. Monday's Sept. 24th holiday makes for a total of 19 national paid holidays this year. Only Colombia comes close in Latin America, with 18.
Many other countries don't extend such benefits to all workers nationwide, according to a 62-nation survey published last year by Mercer Human Resources Consulting. For example, Lebanon has 21 bank holidays, celebrating two Easters and two Good Fridays honoring different religions, but only government and financial sector workers can count on getting paid for the days off.
In contrast, Argentina legally requires all private employers to provide time off or extra pay during all national holidays.
The United States has just 10 national holidays, but for many workers even these aren't a sure thing. The U.S. stands alone among industrial nations in providing no legal guarantees of time off or holiday pay — not even for Christmas or the Fourth of July, said John de Graaf, who runs Take Back Your Time, a group promoting worker protections in the U.S. and Canada.
"It's not good. The thinking is so short-term. It might help the bottom line and shareholder prices in the short run, but in the long run we pay for this stuff," de Graaf said. He said studies show short holiday breaks refresh workers and make them more productive, while lack of time off can increase stress and health problems.
Cecilia Guidi, a Buenos Aires office worker, had no idea what Argentina's latest holiday is for, but she's enjoying it as much as she can. She drove off with her husband and two small children to spend three nights in a hotel in the beach resort of Mar del Plata, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) south of the capital.
"I don't know if so many holidays is good or bad for the country, but it's a good thing for me. I'm spending more time with my family, and getting more rest," she said.
Argentina's newest holiday, granted for this bicentennial year only, honors the day in 1812 when revolutionary war hero Manuel Belgrano led his troops to victory against Spanish royalist forces in the Battle of Tucuman.
More importantly for President Cristina Fernandez, it gives her citizens yet another opportunity to leave their homes and spread their pesos around, underpinning the consumer spending that has kept Argentina afloat in rough economic waters. Guidi's family alone will spend more than $600 on a hotel room, restaurant meals, gas and other expenses they wouldn't have run up without the three-day weekend.
Fernandez has made a point of creating new holidays and moving others so Argentines can take enough time off work to drive or fly long distances to the country's tourist destinations. Honoring patriotic heroes, dictatorship victims and soldiers who died fighting against Britain for the Falkland Islands, she made such a policy of it that September had been the only month this bicentennial year without a holiday — until congress' recent vote added it in, too.
Some labor experts say requiring employers to pay for so many holidays harms profits, endangering the economy.
"Faced with such an increase in holidays, businesses run the risk of losing productivity and efficiency in daily work. In many cases, holidays interrupt planned activities and make coordination difficult," said Pablo Molouny, who runs the Trabajando.com consulting firm in Buenos Aires.
Tourism businesses, however, credit the holidays with turning around local economies across Argentina. More than 9.5 million people traveled during the year's first seven long weekends, spending $1.6 billion and increasing the GDP by 7 percentage points, according to the Tourism Ministry, which estimates that 1.2 million of the country's 40 million people directly owe their jobs to tourism.
"Tourism is a key socio-economic measure for the country," said Oscar Ghezzi, president of the Argentina Tourism Chamber. "It's an important generator of excellent jobs, and also profits. It's an activity that spills over and mobilizes all the economies, from big cities to small towns."
But does all this time off slow down the overall economy? Could Argentina's abundance of holiday joy push businesses to invest in other countries instead?
Not necessarily, because another key factor is how many vacation days governments require employers to provide. Argentina trails many other nations by insisting on just 14 days for beginning employees. Together with the 19 holidays, it means Argentine employers have to provide at least 33 days off a year, the same as Colombia, which requires a minimum of 15 days' vacation.
France, Austria, Greece and most Nordic countries require 25 days paid vacation, which together with national holidays makes for a world-leading 38 days off in Austria, the Mercer survey found. Venezuela leads Latin America with a total of 36 paid days off, while Morocco and Malaysia lead Africa and Asia with 32.
"The numbers of working days in Argentina are comparable with the rest of the region ... while Argentina has a high number of holidays, it requires fewer vacation days than other countries," said Laura Roldan, who directs health and benefits research for Mercer Argentina. "From the business perspective this isn't a big deal. Yes, it's an additional cost, but it's something manageable."
China has a reputation for difficult working conditions, yet requires employers to pay for 11 national holidays and 10 vacation days, a total of 21, Mercer found. The United States doesn't legally require employers to provide any vacation pay at all.
Argentina's congress overwhelmingly approved the latest holiday, but when de Graaf drafted a bill introduced in the 2009 U.S. Congress that would have required companies with 50 employees or more to provide just one week's paid vacation, "you would have thought we were demanding the end of Western Civilization," he said.
Argentines and their neighbors seem to recognize the upside of encouraging workers to have lives outside the office, he said. "The Latin Americans generally really do appreciate their holidays and time."
Associated Press writer Michael Warren in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.