Many American Workers Afraid to Take Vacation

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Afraid to Take Vacation The culmination of the July 4 holiday frequently marks the beginning of the busy summer travel season in the U.S., and the time when many Americans plan to take time off from work.

The third quarter, which includes July, August and September, is by far the most popular travel time among Americans, according to AAA. Travel volume on average is more than 15 percent higher than in the final three months of the year, the next busiest quarter, the group says.

Though many U.S. workers at least plan to take vacation, the sputtering economic recovery means fewer are using the days allotted them. Citing financial constraints and demanding work schedules, some employees are forgoing vacation plans altogether, a recent CareerBuilder.com survey shows.

Nearly a quarter of full-time workers said they couldn't afford to take a vacation, up three percentage points from last year, while another 12 percent said that although they could afford to take a vacation, they had no plans to take one. Further, of those who planned to take vacation, 30 percent said that they would stay in contact with their employers while away.

Jonathan Theodore, an insurance consultant who runs his own business in Suffern, N.Y., says his growing business means he's traveling more for work, leaving less time for traditional week-long vacations.

But he and his family are compensating by taking shorter, more frequent trips. Those include a recent long weekend in Lake George, a resort in New York state's Adirondack Mountains that's about a three-hour drive from Theodore's home.

"It's hard to just take an entire week off," says Theodore, who is married and has a 4-year-old daughter. "But we also value our family time."

Instead of taking a week off, he says, the family can take three long weekends for about the same or less money, after factoring in costs for air travel and hotels.

Theodore's strategy can also be used to ensure employees use all the vacation days granted them by employers. CareerBuilder's survey showed that 16 percent of workers polled surrendered vacation days last year because they didn't feel they had time to use them.

By using up a day here and there, workers can ensure they use up their vacation days and not risk losing them, should their employer not permit them to be rolled over into the next year.

Americans' reluctance to take time off isn't just a product of their need to keep producing. It's also driven by lax regulations governing mandated time off from work.

The U.S. is only one of nine nations worldwide that doesn't require employers to provide annual paid leave, Mother Jones magazine recently noted. Many countries stipulate that companies grant employees at least two weeks paid leave, although others, including Russia, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Finland and much of Western Europe require workers to have four or more weeks each year.

The U.S. is also among only 16 nations that doesn't require a set amount of time off from week to week. Much of the world requires workers be given at least 24 hours off from their jobs, although a few require as much as 37 to 48 hours off.

Further, despite the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which allows employees to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave from work and still return to their jobs, the United States is only one of six nations that doesn't require paid maternity leave. By contrast, Russia mandates that women be given 140 days of paid maternity leave -- 70 days before and 70 days after birth, according to Catalyst.org.

Though paid time off of any form isn't required by federal law, many companies of course provide it as part of an overall benefits program because they want to.

In offering such benefits voluntarily, employers seek in part to fend off legislation mandating compensated leave, says Laura Hertzog, director of Human Capital Development Programs at Cornell University. Offering paid time off as a perk also gives companies the flexibility to withdraw the benefit if it becomes unworkable or too costly.

"Rather than rights, they're privileges," she says, which can be revoked at any time. And that may be never so true as today. With the nation's unemployment rate stuck stubbornly high, employers -- who have access to an ample pool of talent -- have little reason to offer additional perks.

Even after the economy improves, there's little reason to expect the U.S. to adopt laws mandating paid leave like those of other Western nations.

The current lack of political will or power means that "changes to employment policies in the United States are likely to be incremental," Hertzog says.

With many Americans too fearful of taking vacation, lest they find themselves without a job upon their return, laws mandating paid vacation and other time off might help to allay some of that concern. For now, however, there's no rest for the weary.


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