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With downsizing, vacation days going unused

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By Bonnie Miller Rubin
Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO -- Ken Waltz works at Alexian Brothers Health System and can't remember the last time he took a day off.
He's not a physician responding to life-and-death emergencies or a new hire hustling to impress the boss. He's the director of facilities and construction, responsible for five hospitals and several million square feet in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
"I made a couple of attempts to get away -- like taking the kids to the (Wisconsin) Dells -- but I just had to cancel," said Waltz, who has worked for the company for 17 years.
While Labor Day may signal the end of summer, it's hardly a sign of a nation recharged and refreshed. Sixty-five percent of working Americans had unused vacation days at the end of 2011, according to a study last spring by Kelton Research for Radisson Hotels. Nearly one-third of the 1,000 respondents said they don't use their allotted time because their to-do list keeps them tethered to their desks.
Experts agree that since 2008, workers are leaving more vacation time on the table, though there is no comparable data from before the recession. As companies downsized during the economic downturn, survivors picked up the slack, putting in long hours to tackle more and more work. And even if they managed to escape for a week, the pile of projects upon their return was cited by almost one in five as reason enough to skip the next vacation.
"People prize their personal time, but they're more worried about the economy and jobs," said Paul Bazell of Adviant, a Dallas-based human resources consulting firm. "One person is now doing the work of three, so they can't even think about taking time off. Because they say, 'I might lose my job ... and I just can't go out and get a new one.'"
So, those visions of languid summer days so ripe with possibilities back on Memorial Day? Forget about it. The road trip along America's bucolic back roads or a respite in a cottage by the lake? For many it's a mirage, experts said.
The Kelton study found that polled workers had an average of 18.2 vacation days, but had only taken 13.4 by December 2011. The issue has become so widespread that both Hyatt and Radisson Hotels have launched promotions, urging people to savor their free time.
Carol Sladek, a partner with Aon Hewitt, the Lincolnshire human resources consulting firm, is not surprised by the surplus days. Many companies have been trying to do more with less since the recession, and with unemployment stuck around 8.6 percent, some employees feel pressure to skip taking all their time off.
Typically, two weeks of vacation is standard practice for most large companies, with a third week added at five years of service and a fourth at the 10-year mark, Sladek said. However, "very few" people schedule more than one week off at a time, with most opting for a measly day or two sprinkled across the calendar
"There's such an emphasis on productivity and they still have this underlying fear that they won't get all their work done and they'll be missed," she explained. "Or perhaps my employer will discover that they don't need me."
Scott Quinn, a pilot for a major airline, is perplexed by so many people willing to dispense with their well-deserved benefits.
"I think it's crazy," said Quinn, a 15-year veteran based at O'Hare International Airport. "Corporations have taken so much in the last few years that I think you should take every last day."
Employers really are sincere when they say they don't want stressed-out workers, and the concern is not just from a health and wellness perspective, but from a financial one, Sladek said. Some states -- including Illinois -- require companies to pay departing employees for their accrued time off.
Ken Waltz's company allows paid time off to carry over from year to year, so Waltz has saved up about 500 hours.
It's no less frenzied in the elegant world of black-tie affairs. Jane Himmel is the senior catering manager for Palmer House Hilton. She has used only five of her 22 days in 2012. With 35 couples tying the knot at the hotel this year, she had to shelve plans for a trip to London.
Himmel will go nonstop from wedding season to the fall gala season to corporate holiday parties. She's already committed for five weddings in December - on top of the usual yuletide rush.
Her first chance of a breather? Maybe in January, she said.
©2012 Chicago Tribune
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