Recession breeds vacation angst

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RecessionIt’s a rare summer when Phyllis Davenport misses the annual reunion in her family’s east Texas hometown. But this July, the single mom and her teenage daughter stayed home.

As a 25-year veteran of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles, it wasn’t a matter of having enough vacation time stockpiled.

The real barrier: anxiety about money, especially after a third furlough day that has squeezed Davenport’s budget ever tighter and slammed the brakes on her Texas travel plans.

“With the furloughs, I can’t afford to take vacation,” Davenport said.

“I felt it was more prudent for me to save my money instead of using a credit card to have a vacation I couldn’t afford.”

For employees navigating an uncertain economy, taking summer vacation time is no day at the beach. With furloughs, pay cuts and the specter of layoffs hovering overhead, vacation angst can be both financial and emotional.

Some worry whether they can afford to take a vacation or fear there won’t be a job waiting when they get back. Others wonder whether it’s wise to be absent from the office too long.

Others feel guilty about taking a vacation when so many colleagues have lost their jobs.

But the stresses of today’s workplace are exactly why workers should take a break, said Eric Winegardner, a vice president at employment Web site Monster.com who specializes in workplace issues.

“Now is the time you should be taking time off. You need a break,” said Winegardner, speaking at a recent Sacramento job fair.

As it is, it’s hard to persuade U.S. workers to take time off.

With an average of 14 days a year, Americans earn far fewer vacation days than their counterparts in countries such as France, Italy and Canada.

But even so, nearly one-third of working adults in the United States typically do not use up all of their earned vacation, according to travel Web site Expedia.com’s annual Vacation Deprivation Survey, which tracks global vacation habits.

Here in the West, the trend is even higher ? 40 percent of employed workers usually do not take all of the vacation they’ve earned.

Some, like community relations adminstrator Traci Goularte, and her husband, Tony, a bank manager, are taking shorter stints off work by bookending their vacation days around a weekend, such as a recent four-day jaunt to Disneyland with their 2-year-old son.

The couple say they don’t plan to take another break until the winter holidays. Traci Goularte said she’s extremely mindful of how an extended vacation would affect her co-workers.

“You want to make sure you’re taking time away, but not too much time because you want to be up to date with your work when you return,” she said.

Some employees ? 38 percent of women and 28 percent of men ? say they feel guilty about taking vacation, according to the Expedia.com study.

They shouldn’t, said David Kaplan, chief professional officer at the Virginia-based American Counseling Association.

Getting away from the office, he said, could actually help preserve your job.

“If we don’t take vacation time, we get burned out,” Kaplan said. “The classic sign of burnout is a lack of interest. You’re more likely to get fired for (that) than asking for vacation.”

If you’re concerned about being absent, discuss those concerns with your employer. Most companies want their employees to take a break, for reasons of both morale and money, experts say.

“From an employer’s perspective, there’s a financial impact to this,” Winegardner said, referring to the accumulated vacation hours that can sit on employers’ books as a liability.

Indeed, large vacation balances “can become a financial liability” for a company, whether it’s shelling out weeks of vacation pay or cashing out an employee’s vacation hours if they leave the company, said Debra Squyres a director at San Leandro, Calif.-based TriNet, which provides human resources services to small businesses.

“The goal is to design paid leave so only so many hours carry over from year to year,” Squyres said. “It accomplishes the company’s financial goals, and if (employees) are not taking adequate time off, their productivity will decline.”

At Surewest Communications, accrued days off are capped to keep companywide vacation hours at manageable levels while encouraging employees to take a break.

“It’s a very strong incentive to take vacation time. You don’t want to stop accruing, so it keeps people motivated to take time off,” said Karlyn Oberg, Surewest’s vice president of administration.

Surewest employees are discouraged from cashing out unused vacation time. But, in the current economy, more employees have asked about the option, Oberg said.

Officials at United Parcel Service are also adamant about their vacation stance.

“We insist that people take their vacation. It’s earned and we expect it. Taking time away from work is important,” said Neal McLens, human resources manager for UPS’ East Bay Region.

McLens even tied vacation to the economic recovery, saying refreshed workers will be ready to pounce when the recession lifts.

“This economy will (recover),” McLens said, “and we want our employees ready for that turnaround.”

(c) 2009, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.