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Why Are So Many Americans Leaving Their Vacation Days on the Table?

Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Economy with 5 Comments


couple on beach enjoying vacationBy

June snuck up on Gina Femia this year. Most people would not mind waking up to find summer knocking on their door, but for Femia, 28, it also meant that her unused vacation days were about to vanish.

Had she let her vacation elapse, she would have joined thousands of workers who have done the same. Last year, the number of unused vacation days in the US reached a 40-year high. Researchers at Oxford Economics hired by the US Travel Association put the numbers at about 169m days, equivalent to $52.4bn in lost benefits.

The main culprit? America’s workaholic culture. It’s not that Americans do not want a vacation – it’s that they are afraid to take it. Currently, on average, each US worker fails to use about five paid vacation days a year.

Related Article: 6 Bad Travel Habits to Quit Now So You Can Enjoy Your Vacation More

As unused vacation days reach a record high, a number of employers are trying to take a different approach to paid vacations, helping create a movement for employees to reclaim their personal time.

Despite the shift to empower workers to take their vacation, many still feel guilty about it, drag their feet and then struggle to schedule time off at the last minute.

“That’s exactly what happened this year,” said Femia, who lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan. “I woke up in June and was like: ‘Oh man, I have to use a whole bunch of days now!’”

Femia works for a not-for-profit company focusing on leadership training, which does not roll over unused paid vacation days for its employees. She gets 15 paid vacation days a year and the company’s fiscal year ends in June.

Organizing her last-minute vacation was “tricky”, she said.

“The same thing happened to my supervisor and we were trying to coordinate our time out of the office without it overlapping too much,” she explained. “It’s funny, because we are definitely encouraged to use our vacation days. I’ve never been told I couldn’t go away for any time that I’ve requested. However, I feel like there’s always something I should be working on so I wind up putting it off as long as possible – even though I could often really use the break.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Femia. In 2012, only about 77% of Americans working for privately owned companies got paid vacation days. On average, their allotted paid time off was 10 to 14 days.

More than half of Americans, 56%, have not taken a vacation in the last year, according to the insurance company Allianz Global Assistance. That’s equivalent to 135 million people. The survey defined vacation as a week off from work during which those surveyed travelled at least 100 miles away from home.

Another survey of 1,005 Americans, conducted last year by Skift, found that just 15% of Americans planned to take a real vacation in 2014. That same survey found that 33% of Americans couldn’t afford a vacation, 30% were too busy and that 22% were going to take a short vacation over a summer weekend.

“The statistics are pretty alarming – 41% of Americans don’t take their paid time off,” said Cheryl Rosner, CEO and co-founder of Stayful, a travel booking site for boutique hotels, referring to the US Travel Association survey.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all. We’re taught to work until we drop,” said Femia. “I doubt anybody who isn’t using them is doing it for spite or malice. It’s probably because their company is discouraging them from using them or because they feel like they’ll fall behind in their workplace if they do.”

Last year, the US Travel Association found that 28% of workers did not take vacation so that they could prove their dedication and not be seen as slackers. Another 40% were afraid of the work they’d have to do when they got back from vacation.

John de Graaf, president of Take Back Your Time, an organization trying to change the way Americans use their paid vacation days, agrees that there is a lot of fear out there. “Much of it misplaced, but some very real,” he said.

“This fear is especially prevalent at a time of volatile change in the economy as we have experienced since 2008,” he explained. “Secondly, without backups, many workers feel that too much work will pile up while they are are gone and they will be so stressed when they return that time off won’t be worth it.”

Related Article: When Your Mojo And Money Are On Vacation

Fear and loathing on the beach

It’s difficult to point the finger at the main culprit behind this increasing trend in unused vacation days, but most say it has to do with the culture in the workplace.

“It makes me angry, not at them [the workers], but at this ‘fight to survive’ culture we’ve accustomed to. We should all get vacation days and not feel so bogged down at work so we could actually use them,” said Femia.

Most workers, even if they take vacation, tend to keep the guilt and worries over work pile-up at bay by staying connected with the office.


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5 Reader Comments

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  1.' Jackie Lally says:

    In Ireland minimum statutory holiday entitlements are 4 weeks paid leave not including the 9 public holidays. Most people i know take all their leave. Other European countries have longer leave. Its a shame Americans feel guilty taking time out.

  2.' Dawn Bloom says:

    Not for me, I never left a vacation day on the table….

  3.' Jenny Reuter says:

    Um, no!!!

  4.' Steve Parker says:

    Never! Work is always there. Your life is going by and unless you adore what you do then get out there anytime you can.

  5.' Sorgfelt says:

    When my kids were little, I saved most of my vacation days to take care of the kids when my wife had to travel on business, and one week every other year to visit grandparents. There is also the fact that we didn’t have enough money to travel on a so-called real vacation. Now, my vacation days have reached the max allowed, and I take time off here and there just to keep it at that point. It is like a savings account, for some extra cash in case I am laid off, or emergencies to take care of. There is one other reason not to have a family vacation – our dog. We don’t think he would do well in a kennel or trust anyone to take care of him without him peeing in the wrong places, either in their place our ours.

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