Brian J. O’Connor: For many, vacation is too much work

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

It’s vacation time, people, so how are you spending your summer getaway time? With an inspiring trip to a bucolic mountain? A tranquil stay in a cozy woodland cottage? Being extorted by a multinational cultural imperialist on a six-day theme-park death march?

That’s not the case for more than half of U.S. workers, it turns out. According to a travel industry initiative called Project Time Off, last year 55 percent of us didn’t take all of our vacation time. On average, Americans didn’t use nearly six of their paid days off, leaving a total of 658 million unused vacation days on the books.

Some analysts say we’re skipping Yellowstone to keep our noses to the grindstone because America’s work culture has us too scared or overworked to take time off, calling it “work martyrdom.” Workers reported that they feared returning to a mountain of office chores after a break (37 percent), that no one else could do their jobs (35 percent) and that they didn’t feel their bosses supported taking all their time off (80 percent).

I don’t buy it. I’ve never felt my bosses supported me in filling out my time card each week, either, but somehow I still hand in the paperwork to get paid.

It’s not required in the handbook

I harbor two suspicions about the real reason workers stay at their desks. The first is that it is much, much easier to tell your family that the big looming project at work makes taking any time off impossible, rather than explaining that you’re not all that excited about paying $12 for a stale corn dog during your nine-hour wait at the World of Smurfs.

The second is that many workers don’t want the boss to discover how completely NOT indispensable they are on the job.

You: Hi, boss, I’m back.

Boss: You were gone?

You: Yeah, I was on a three-week cruise. It was great!

Boss: Really? Can you excuse me a minute? I need to call Human Resources ... and Security.

In the end, I think it really comes down to money. A full 33 percent of workers told Project Time Off they didn’t take all their time off last year because they couldn’t afford a vacation. And earlier this year, 54 percent of workers surveyed told a poll that they were skipping vacations this year because they didn’t have the cash.

So, rather than hang around the house and clean out your filthy, clogged gutters, you might as well head to the office and deal with a different kind of gross, disgusting mess.

Like performance reviews

It’s easy to see why workers can’t afford a summer getaway. Our jobs are more insecure, real wages have fallen during the last decades, health care costs have soared and pensions have disappeared, leaving us to save more for retirement. Add in younger workers with staggering amounts of college debt and workers still paying off an underwater mortgage or other financial damage from the great recession, and it’s obvious that many of us can’t afford to splurge on travel.

But not taking all our vacation time means our bosses not only get to keep the workplace understaffed, they also accrue a huge windfall, thanks to their own policies that say unused vacation days simply disappear, without being be rolled over, paid out or exchanged for any other benefit. Project Time Off estimates that the 222 million forfeited vacation days last year resulted in a total of $61.4 billion in benefits workers earned but never receive.

As a personal finance expert, I can’t criticize anyone for skipping a vacation they can’t afford, and it seems foolish to say that all people who are financially strapped need to do is save up for a vacation when they obviously can’t find the cash. I suppose you could take your vacation time, get a temporary job for those two weeks and save that money for next year’s trip, but that’s a brutal way to afford your time off.

It’s a knotty problem, and one that’s obviously needs a lot more study and research on my part. Probably someplace quiet, where I can think. Tell the boss I’ll need a few days off.

(313) 222-2145

Twitter: @BrianOCTweet

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”