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Unused vacation time in US at 40-year high

Americans forfeit more than $52 billion in earned benefits each year

There's a new trend when it comes to U.S. workers and vacations. Americans are forfeiting much of their vacation time each year. One report shows that unused vacation time is at a 40-year high in the U.S., with the equivalent of about $224 billion going to companies. That translates to employees’ giving up more than $52 billion in earned benefits each year.

There is no law that requires employers to give workers paid vacation days, but most do. According to 2011 data gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 90 percent of full-time employees received paid time off. But reports show that only 77 percent of that time off was used and that it was unrelated to the recent economic downturn.

There are many reasons Americans pass on taking vacation time. Human resources consultant David Bowman said many people are afraid of backstabbing and of co-workers’ trying to steal their jobs while they’re away. He also said that if people are up for promotions or raises, they may not want to come across as lazy or unproductive.

Other reasons include a fear of getting behind on the job because no one else may be able to take on the duties for that position. Still other workers say they can’t afford expensive trips. Some solutions to these problems include having a plan for catching up after return and taking staycations, in which employees can relax at home and enjoy activities in their home city.

Bowman said taking vacation time is very important because people get burned out from overwork, become disengaged from their jobs and lose their creative edge. “For the good of the company, the employee and the employee’s family, the company should encourage, as much as possible, people to take vacation and to take it all,” he said.

In Europe providing paid vacation time is mandatory, unlike in the United States, and Europeans generally take all their vacation days. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, employers in Germany and Spain provide their workers with 34 days of paid time off, on average; in France, 31 days. In comparison, employers in the U.S. give workers an average of 21 days off. A recent report shows that about a third of vacation days in the U.S. may not be rolled over to the next year.

During Al Jazeera America’s Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Del Walters spoke to Dan Schawbel, the founder of, and to David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and an online columnist for Al Jazeera America.

“Vacation has completely changed,” said Schawbel. “The average workweek is not 40 hours a week anymore. A Gallup study shows that it’s 47 hours a week now. Multiple studies show that people do not have enough time for their personal interests anymore. It’s the abolishment of work-life balance as we know it.” He said that even on vacation, people still end up answering emails and doing other work-related tasks.

Schawbel said his company did a study that found that despite the increasing workday and workers’ getting burnout, people are accepting of it. “Employees are still happy despite the amount of hours that they have to put in for the same salary or less.”

Johnston agreed. He said there is “a great deal of fear by people that if they’re gone, their company may see them as not necessary, they may get stabbed in the back by somebody. We have a culture that’s creating this as an underlying problem.”

He added that technology doesn’t help the matter. “People go on vacation now, and the boss can text them, email them, phone them and say, ‘Could you just do this one little thing?’”

Another study shows that more than half of Americans have gone more than 12 months without a vacation. Schawbel said the figure correlates with his company’s research. “More than half of employees say they are burned out. After the recession, companies are slower to hire, their interview process has been extended, and there’s so much more pressure on employees because companies are hiring less and employees have to do so much more. It’s all about pleasing the shareholders, and it looks better for them if you’re lowering your headcount and increasing your profits.”

Johnston said that staycations should not be frowned on. He said there’s nothing wrong with staying home, reading books and catching an afternoon movie. “Not taking a vacation or a break is a real problem,” he said. “It’s part of a culture where workers have no power because of a decline of unions in this country. Lots of people are working off the books, extra hours out of concern that their company will shed them.”

Schawbel said people fear that if they don’t work hard enough, they will sink to the bottom and their colleagues could be promoted over them. He added, “People are more accepting that this is the new reality. Every year it’s going to get harder. It’s a very tough time to be an employee in America right now.”

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