In America, if you work hard enough, you can aspire to a gold-plated grille for your car or your teeth. You can sport hundred-dollar cuff links or arrive at work in a helicopter. This is the Land of Golden Opportunity, after all.
While on the job, slaving away for those cuff links, I’ve always wondered if the happiness factor at work correlates with our specific job specs or with the amount of appreciation we receive for fulfilling them. Employee benefits are just one of many elements that make workers feel happy to be part of the team, but with only a few months of maternity leave here, a meager travel stipend there, how are we hardworking Americans faring on a global scale in terms of job perks? I can’t help but wonder whether the grass is greener for worker bees abroad. Turns out, a few foreign lands provide benefits that the American Dream hasn’t even begun to dream of yet.
My Big Fat Greek Bonus
True, our Mediterranean friends are in the midst of a recession just like the rest of us are right now. But before the debt crisis, according to TheStar.com, Greek companies were rife with working pleasures:
Christmas Come Early. For the Greeks, Christmas bonuses come three times a year: half a month’s extra salary is paid to employees at Easter, then again during summer, and once again at Christmas. Even employees who aren’t strapped down to a nine-to-five job are entitled to a tip from Santa: as a “Christmas present,” taxis, restaurants, and hairdressers are legally allowed to charge extra during the holiday season.
A Raise, Per Favore? All Greek public- and private-sector workers get fourteen monthly salary payments annually, a structure aimed at keeping basic monthly salaries, and the pensions stemming from them, low. However, it’s also a system of bonuses that would make most American workers faint in their cubicles. For example, some civil servants are paid extra for using a computer; others, for simply arriving at work on time. Speaking a foreign language can also put extra money in an employee’s pocket, while many foresters get a bonus for working outdoors.
’Round-the-World Ticket for One, Please. For decades, labor unions squashed government attempts to sell the debt-ridden Olympic Airways. At the cost of millions for Greek taxpayers, employees of the airline enjoyed possibly the most generous benefit imaginable—their family members could fly around the world for free. But alas, even a free plane ride must come back down to Earth eventually: the EU took disciplinary measures against Athens for pouring state money into the loss-making airline, even after private local airlines began serving similar routes for less. Olympic was sold in 2008, but only after the state lavishly compensated or rehired about 4,600 employees.
Norway and Germany: The Benefits of Baby Making
Norwegian Daddy Quota. In Norway, generous employee benefits have actually done wonders for the birth rate, according to BBC News. One parent is entitled to twelve months off work with 80 percent pay, or ten months off with full pay. Husbands are also encouraged to take off as much time as possible and must, at the very least, take four weeks off after the baby is born (or else those weeks will be lost for both parents). This is known as the “daddy quota”; the government has even proposed to expand it by one more week.
This paid leave is guaranteed by Norway’s National Insurance Act, which began back in 1956. Because the leave is financed through taxes, employers don’t lose out financially when people take their parental leave. The present system of ten or twelve months’ leave with 80 to 100 percent pay has been in effect since 1993. Since then, according to the BBC’s research, the Norwegians’ birth rate has been a steady 1.8 percent higher than in most European countries—and who can blame them? Of course, the government doesn’t propose these benefits to bolster the birth rate, but it does believe in securing greater gender equality and increasing workers’ rights.
Bring Out the Baby Lederhosen. While baby-making conditions are good in Norway, they’re even more promising in Germany. When a woman becomes pregnant, her employer must pay her six weeks before and eight weeks after the birth. Additionally, once the parents decide which of them will be taking parental leave, the employer must reserve the mother or father’s job for twenty-four months. That’s right—two years’ worth of parental leave! (Not to mention the six weeks’ vacation time to which all German employers are entitled.)
Hungary? Have a Food Stamp
In addition to receiving a lengthy maternity leave like the Germans and Norwegians do, Hungarian workers get monthly food stamps atop their salaries, but these coupons differ from the American version. The stamps, called a sodexo pass, are the equivalent of about $60 worth of tax-free money and can be spent at supermarkets and restaurants. During the holidays, workers also receive shopping stamps, called an ajándék pass, that can be spent at most retail stores, along with travel stamps (udelesi csekk) that can be redeemed at certain resorts around the country. The stamps are win-win for the employee and the Hungarian economy: the money is tax-free and promotes domestic purchases on food and travel.
Israel: The Value of an Internship
Masa Israel—a company headquartered in Israel and a funded partnership between the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel—offers internships to college graduates (approximately ten thousand participants per year) around the world and paves the path for full-time employment in Israel or back home. If you consider the average American-based internship, which typically includes menial duties ranging anywhere from data entry to wiping down windows, this internship offers the benefits of employment even under a volunteer/tourist visa.
Interns are given a health insurance package, travel benefits throughout the country, Hebrew language courses, seminars and housing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv with peers, free extracurricular activities (theater outings, films, lectures, weekend trips), and the opportunity to create an immersion program on the interns’ terms, which for many means being set up with a full-time job immediately following the internship.
Although America falls short as far as these foreign benefits go (when was the last time you heard of someone in the United States receiving free airfare, free health care, and bonuses for showing up on time?), perhaps in the current market, the best benefit is just having any job to wake up for. At the end of the workday, what might be the best thing about America is that we can always keep on dreaming of bigger, brighter things to come.