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All Work and No Play? No Way

Many firms see forcing employees to take their allotted time off as a profitable policy.

September 04, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Like many Americans, Maris Friedman finds it hard to completely chill out on vacation. A senior manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Los Angeles, Friedman says it usually takes her "a few days to decompress," and she finds herself checking her office e-mail daily.

To discourage such behavior, the accounting giant shuts down its U.S. operations between Christmas and New Year's, giving virtually all employees the time off with pay. Friedman calls the hiatus "fantastic. No one's on e-mail, there are no phone calls, no nothing."

Worried about employee burnout and turnover, some employers are forcing workers to take the vacation time they are entitled to. Determined to take some of the "labor" out of Labor Day and other holidays, employers are encouraging these workaholics to switch off their cellphones and log out of e-mail while they're away.

Some employers even go a step further -- giving weaker performance reviews or lower pay raises to those who don't make use of their allotted time. The 400 employees of the American Management Assn., for example, risk being dinged for poor time management, said Manny Avramidis, head of human resources for the New York-based training group.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 28, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Forced vacations: An article on Sept. 4 in Business about some employers requiring workers to take accrued vacation said many companies had adopted "a use-it-or-lose-it policy." It failed to note that the policy is illegal in California. However, California employers can legally cap how many vacation days their workers can accrue.

One Chicago hotel offers to help electronically addicted vacationers relax by locking up their cellphones and laptops during their stay.

But it's a tough sell. With companies thinly staffed and employees under the gun to do more with less, "vacation" has become another word for "remote work site."

"Organizations are very lean now, and without adequate staffing the idea of coming back from vacation to a disaster is very upsetting," said Ophelia Galindo, a health and benefits consultant for Mercer Human Resource Consulting.

For some employees, a "post-recession fear" of being laid off keeps them at their desks, said Jennifer Sullivan, a spokeswoman for CareerBuilder.com, an online job search firm partly owned by Tribune Co., parent firm of the Los Angeles Times.

The U.S. may be the only industrialized nation that has no mandated national holidays or vacation period that private employers are compelled by law to recognize. Labor Day, for example, is a national holiday, but employers have discretion on whether to let workers have it off.

On top of that, Americans get fewer paid days off, from 10 to 14 annually on average, than workers in any other industrialized nation, according to various surveys. By contrast, the French and Austrians loll about for six weeks or more each year, and even the industrious Japanese and Chinese have more than three weeks.

American workers give many of those vacation days back. About a third of Americans routinely tell researchers they don't use all the time coming to them. And past surveys indicate that of those who pack up the minivan, half are likely to sneak a peek at their e-mail or lug their laptop poolside.

"Workers are stuck in a vise grip between spiraling workweeks, lengthening work hours and shrinking vacations and time off," said Joe Robinson, a Santa Monica-based business consultant. What he calls a real vacation -- time physically and electronically disconnected from work -- is becoming "an endangered species."

Vacation neglect has consequences, experts say. Overworked employees are more likely to make mistakes and resent their bosses and co-workers, said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute. They're also in poorer health and more likely to be depressed, she said.

Companies are "definitely seeing higher productivity" from employees who know when to stop compared with those toiling nights and weekends, said Juan Garcia, director of research services for Employers Group, a Los Angeles-based consulting firm focusing on California companies. "There's a point of no gain" when workers have gone too long without time off, he said.

In addition to compounding worker stress, unused vacation time represents a major liability for companies whose employees can cash out banked days when they leave.

In its 2006 Vacation Deprivation survey, Expedia.com estimated that Americans failed to use 574 million vacation days over the last year, worth about $75.72 billion based on workers' average hourly earnings.

As a result, many companies have moved to a use-it-or-lose-it policy in recent years. Some lump vacation with sick days in a time-off bank that employees can draw on for any reason during the year -- but they lose unused days. In its 2005 benefits survey, Mercer Human Resource Consulting found that 39% of companies offer such accounts, up from 35% in 2001.

Robinson, the Santa Monica business consultant, takes a dim view of these time-off banks "because they hold vacation hostage to your health." He adds: "For people with a chronic illness or an accident, it can wipe out your vacation."

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