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American Vacation Vanishing for Many Workers - 2004-09-04

Americans observe Labor Day on September 6, a holiday traditionally viewed as the end of the summer vacation season. But not everyone in the United States will be returning to work rested and relaxed. Studies show that Americans are taking fewer vacations, they're getting away from the job for shorter periods of time, and many continue to work even while they're supposed to be having fun.

David Forthuber says he loves his job working for an American telecommunications company. The Orlando, Florida, resident earns a good salary, gets generous health benefits, and considers himself lucky to have three weeks of paid vacation time a year. Still, he works 50 hours a week, sometimes even more, and he says it would be nearly impossible for him to take more than a week of leave at a time.

"There's just so much work. If you took a two week vacation, you would be so backed up in your work and there would be so many tasks that would be undone. And you would also have to find an unofficial partner or a couple partners who will cover for you during that period so your tasks aren't undone," he says.

Activist and writer Joe Robinson believes too many people in the United States aren't getting the time away from work that they need. He says a significant proportion--more than twenty percent--get no paid vacation leave at all. Mr. Robinson is the author of a book called Work To Live, and the moving force behind a campaign that would require U.S. companies to give a mandatory 3 weeks of paid vacation leave a year. He says the campaign grew out of his own travels in other parts of the world.

"It struck me that the Americans were always racing through their trips to get to their return flight. It has become almost an illicit affair to try to take some vacation. There's no law that gives it that validation as it does in other countries. In China they get 3 weeks by law, Australia 4 weeks by law, in Europe they get 4 to 5 weeks by law. And we average 8.1 days after a year and ten after 3 years. And many times, these days, that's only on paper," he says.

A 2004 survey by the Internet travel service Expedia showed that thirty percent of all Americans will actually give up vacation time they earn this year. One reason for the trend, says Joe Robinson, is that U.S. businesses have been trying to cut costs by reducing their work force and offering fewer employee benefits. But he also believes Americans have long tended to measure their self worth by their work outputa practice that dates back to the nation's early settlers. "The Protestant Calvinist work ethic declared that idle time was the Devil's time, and one of the worst things was spontaneous enjoyment. That all got translated into the secular sphere in the early part of the twentieth century, and I think in recent years we've morphed from a work ethic to an overwork ethic," he says.

The Expedia travel study also found that one third of all Americans now take work along with them on vacation. Dan Brooks is a technology attorney in the Washington, D.C. area. During the summers he spends time at his family's vacation home in the northern state of Maine. But he never really stops working. "My father, who built this place, made it a point not to bring work with him, but there was a transition sometime in the last 50 years," he says.

That transition means that Mr. Brooks shifts back and forth between leisure activities and job duties while he's on vacation, starting with an E-mail check first thing in the morning. "I have clients who are being serviced as easily from here as they would be from the home office or the law firm office. The technology has enabled that to be almost seamless. Because of my specialty, I can pretty much arrange to have any piece of gear that works in an office work in my cottage here--printers, faxes, copiers, portable computers, networkjust like home," he says.

Dan Brooks believes his working vacations reflect both the expectations of his clients and personal choice. He says he's never been the type to lie on a beach all day and do nothing. But Joe Robinson is convinced that for both their emotional and physical well-being, everyone needs a break from worka complete break that lasts more than a weekend or a week. "The vacation is really the best time of year for you to get reconnected to who you are and where you want to go, as well as to just enjoy yourself and get yourself recharged. Men who take an annual vacation a year can reduce their risk of heart attacks by 30 percent and women can do the same, reducing it by 50 percentby a simple annual vacation," he says.

Joe Robinson says vacations also prevent the kind of employee burnout that can reduce productivity. He points to U.S. companies that, like businesses elsewhere in the world, are now planning for employee absences well in advance, and training workers who can fill in for their vacationing colleagues. "One financial services company in Oregon has doubled its profits as a result. Its morale has soared. Another company that went to three weeks vacation and cross-training in Cincinnati has increased their profits by fifteen percent. They were able to eliminate overtime because morale at the company went sky high afterwards. So they're more productive than they were before," he says.

Joe Robinson's campaign for a three week American vacation has gotten lots of support at his web site, where people post notes about their busy lives and need for more time off. They include David Forthuber, who says that while he's not a disgruntled employee himself, he does believe the issue should be of national concern. "I've thought for a long time that one of the problems in this country in the last twenty years or so is that people don't have time for their families any more. I got involved because I think we should have four-day work weeks and certainly at a minimum more vacation time so that people do have an opportunity to relax," he says.

David Forthuber says that as a nation, Americans need to stop and think about why they're working so hard, what they're working for, and how to spend the free time they do have.