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Big Summer Vacations Certainly Not Routine Anymore

May 26, 2014 5:00 pm

Skift Take

The decline of the summer family vacation hits the travel industry in the gut, and the American family feels the blow, as well.

— Jason Clampet

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George Lezenby  / Flickr.com

The big summer vacation may be going out with the tide as many Americans don't use all of their vacation time or can't afford an extended getaway. Pictured is a a beach in Wildwood, New Jersey in August 2012. George Lezenby / Flickr.com


Are you ready to pack up the minivan for a two-week family vacation this summer?

Probably not.

As the summer vacation season gets underway, the demands of work, family dynamics and kids’ activity schedules have diminished that American tradition of multi-week family getaways. Whether by choice or financial circumstance, vacations these days are just as likely to be taken a day or two at a time, or at any time of the year — or not taken at all.

At Perceptive Software in Lenexa, which has an unusually flexible time-off policy, Ben Keefe has used part of what used to be called vacation time to train for the Boston Marathon and coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Co-worker Emily Perkins, who describes herself as a working mom with a toddler, says maybe one-fourth of her paid time off goes to “using time to do things around the house and other things I can’t get to on regular weekends.”

At the Polsinelli law firm in Kansas City, partner Robert Hingula says he has trouble remembering the last time his family took a traditional vacation. But that’s partly by choice. He, his wife and his daughter are heavily involved in dance and theater, including summertime shows.

“It’s just our lifestyle,” Hingula said. “It’s a different kind of work/life balance. I’m a big advocate for a change of environment as a stress relief, and theater is my break.”

Then there are business owners like Brad Justice, who opened a Kansas City office furniture supply business 15 years ago. He figures he has taken just four or five weeks off in all those years, a vacation dearth many small-business operators can relate to.

But Justice also counts himself among businesspeople who love what they do and simply don’t feel the need for extended time off. Some of them champion “the American work ethic.”

“Work is fun and challenging, and time off is not always fun and never as challenging,” Justice said.

But there is a flip side: Millions of workers desperately want but can’t afford to take time off or don’t have the money to spend on a getaway vacation.

The U.S. Department of Labor says about one-fourth of American workers don’t get paid vacations. Some are part-time, contract or self-employed workers who don’t have employee benefits. Others are full-time employees at organizations that don’t offer the benefit.

Paid vacations in America — unlike in many other countries — are a voluntary benefit; employers aren’t required to offer them, or paid holidays for that matter.

A report last year by the Center for Economic and Policy Research noted that the sum of the average paid vacation and paid holidays provided to private sector U.S. workers — 16 days in total — would not meet even the minimum required by law in 19 other economically developed countries.

And when American employers do offer paid vacations, they have the right to restrict the times they can be taken, to require advance notice and to set “use it or lose it” or rollover rules that let employees carry over unused time to the next year.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management last year indicates that the concept of vacation time has been upended in many workplaces. Only slightly more than half of organizations still differentiate between vacations and other time off. Nearly half now have “paid time off” plans that give employees more discretion about how and when to take paid absences.

A separate survey, released this month by Robert Half, found that 4 in 10 employees say they don’t use all the time off allotted them. Employees said the two big reasons were wanting to save the time off in case they needed it later and feeling like they had too much work to do.

The latter reason has cropped up more often in the last decade, a legacy of the downsized workforce in many organizations.

At the two-person U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics office in Kansas City, regional economist Jacqueline Michael-Midkiff sees that effect firsthand.

“When one person takes a vacation, their work can’t just get put on the back burner,” she said. “A vacation for one means double the work for the other.”

The common scenario means that covering co-workers’ work during vacations takes careful planning and “definitely adds to the stress level in the office,” she said. But, what goes around comes around, “so in the end it evens out,” she added.

That’s what workers at Perceptive Software have seen in the three years since the company adopted a time-off policy that basically has no limits. Co-workers say there’s a good environment of self-control and self-policing.

In every work group, a Google docs list keeps track of time-off plans so that co-workers and supervisors can adjust accordingly.

“Work isn’t just an 8 to 5 job anymore,” said Perceptive’s Keefe. “We’re connected 24/7. By throwing out a defined amount of time off, you also throw out the expectation of a 40-hour work week. … The expectation is that I have the flexibility to work when I want to get the job done.”

Connectivity is also altering some summer vacation practices. A family with a nearby lake house or cabin may be able to take a three- or four-day weekend every weekend, and the breadwinners can still do their work on Fridays and Mondays, blurring the line between work and vacation.

A recent trend report on the Have Family Will Travel blog also noted that some families have dropped one- or two-week vacations in favor of family sabbaticals in which family members put their regular work and school routines on hold for extended travel or to do a service project for a few months or even a year.

And one of the most notable vacation trends, the report said, is that grandparents with time and money are planning trips and taking their adult children and grandchildren on getaways.

There’s another force keeping many from taking summer vacations: heavy sports team or camp schedules for the kids. Many families say there isn’t enough summer left to squeeze in a whole-family getaway before school starts up again.

Those crowded activity schedules are another reason summer vacations aren’t as routine anymore. Many families use winter and spring break weeks to get out of town instead.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com. ___

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