Summertime summit in Seattle to dissect Americans' lack of vacation time
Ever since the middle class began taking vacations in the mid-19th century, Americans have wrestled with questions of how much vacation is enough and how to leave work completely behind. Those and other issues will be the subject of a "National Vacation Matters Summit" at Seattle University this week.
Seattle Times staff reporter
If you go
The National Vacation Matters Summitwill be held Monday through Wednesday at Pigott Auditorium, Seattle University campus. Registration costs $50 for the full conference, $25 for students. Most of the presentations will be on Tuesday. Details: www.timeday.org/
We're number 11!According to a study commissioned by Expedia.com, the average number of vacation days* employed adults will receive in 2009:
|1. France||38 days|
|2. Italy||31 days|
|3. Spain||30 days|
|4. (tie) Germany||27 days|
|6. Great Britain||26 days|
|7. New Zealand||21 days|
|8. (tie) Canada||19 days|
|10. Japan||15 days|
|11. United States||13 days|
* Based on the mean of all employed adults, including those who get no vacation time.
Ever since the middle class began taking vacations in the mid-19th century, Americans have wrestled with questions of how much vacation is enough and how to leave work completely behind.
Those and other issues will be batted around at this week's National Vacation Matters Summit at Seattle University.
The agenda lists presentations on everything from the impact of workplace stress on coronary health to why Americans who get paid vacation time use relatively little of it.
The roster of presenters includes cardiologists, psychologists and representatives of organized labor, academia and environmentalism, as well as the travel and tourism industries.
John de Graaf, co-founder and executive director of Take Back Your Time, a Seattle nonprofit that preaches that time can and should mean more than money, organized the event.
"The goal is to bring people together to brainstorm on how we can get Americans to better understand that vacation matters," says de Graaf, an author and freelance film producer. "I am not advocating slacking. That's not the point. We're just totally out of balance in this country."
De Graaf recently helped draft a bill mandating paid vacations that was introduced in Congress by Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla.
The Paid Vacation Act of 2009 would require one week of paid vacation at companies with at least 100 employees. Three years after passage, the bill would extend the one-week vacation mandate to companies with at least 50 employees, and require two weeks for companies with 100 employees. Workers must have worked 1,250 hours in a year to be eligible.
A 2007 report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the United States is the only advanced economy in the world that doesn't guarantee its workers paid vacation. A quarter of American workers don't get any paid annual vacation; those who do average about two weeks a year.
But the vacation issue is not just about providing vacation for everyone. It's also about getting workers to take what they've earned. A 2009 survey commissioned by travel site Expedia.com found that a third of employed U.S. adults "usually" do not take all of the vacation days they receive in a year.
When asked why not, 11 percent of respondents said they were banking their time in hopes of getting money back for unused vacation days. Other top responses involved the hassle of scheduling days off or not being able to coordinate their days off with those of a spouse.
Meanwhile, 37 percent of respondents said they regularly work more than 40 hours per week.
Cindy Aron, a former University of Virginia history professor and author of an exhaustive history of the American vacation, "Working at Play," notes a circular logic.
"What made people middle-class in the 19th century was not only the sort of work they did and the sort of homes in which they lived, but the sort of values to which they aspired: hard work, sobriety, self-control, discipline," she says. "Adhering to these values were what allowed them to accumulate the resources to become middle-class and to take vacations. Being on vacation threatened to undermine those values."
De Graaf's proposed law, which figures to languish behind more pressing legislation, attracted immediate disdain from political conservatives and business interests. Opponents complained such legislation is "one more step toward socialism" (and "becoming France"); is too expensive for employers; and an obstacle to America's competitiveness in the world economy.
They also said the legislation is unnecessary because most American workers already get paid vacation time.
De Graaf was taken aback by the intensity of the opposition because he was criticized by the other end of the spectrum for pushing a too-modest proposal.
Some see this as an odd time to push for paid vacation. Unemployment is high, jobs are being outsourced, companies are under stress to do more with less, and employees find themselves working harder to make ends meet while facing cutbacks, unpaid furloughs and the threat of job loss.
But Michelle Rupp, owner of NRG, a 12-employee Seattle insurance-brokerage company, feels this is the best time to talk seriously about vacations.
"The profit-only model in corporate America is not working," she says. "Plants oil their machines and turn them off at night. We don't run them 24/7. So why do businesses feel they shouldn't help their workers rest and recharge?"
Rupp's company, started by her father in the early '70s, has won national awards for bringing flexibility to the workplace. The company also starts workers at two weeks paid vacation and awards an additional monthlong paid furlough every five years.
Rupp is rigid about one thing: When her employees take vacations, they must take at least a week. That's the minimum that she believes is necessary to feel disconnected from work. She believes rested workers are better workers.
"I'm just carrying on what my dad did," she says. "He got it."
De Graaf learned the value of free time as a kid hiking through Yosemite National Park with his father. At 14, he went backpacking with friends for two weeks. As a high-school senior, he hiked and camped with a buddy for six weeks. Those experiences stuck with him, and he continues to take wilderness excursions with his own son.
In 1994, de Graaf coproduced a PBS documentary called "Running Out of Time," which solidified his thinking. He joined the voluntary simplicity movement but felt the need to go past anti-consumption and efficiency messages. He felt time was the missing — or disappearing — link. Along with colleagues, he started Take Back Your Time to give a "policy dimension" to the simplicity movement.
"I recall a class at the University of Wisconsin in 1968 in which the professor said automation and technology would create a crisis of too much leisure time.
"I told myself that's a problem I could deal with," he says. "But that leisure crisis never came."
Richard Seven: 206-464-2241 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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