The changing landscape of taking time off from work, and getting paid too

Taking time off from work, whether you're sick or just need some vacation time, is no longer a given.

While many employees can call in sick and still get paid, even if a family member is ill and needs care, that's not true for all workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 43 percent of Americans get a smaller paycheck if they can't go to work due to illness. As a result, some workers are coming to work sick, exposing co-workers to contagious illnesses. The same is true for sick children, who must attend school because a parent can't afford unpaid time off.

The U.S. is unique among industrialized countries for failing to require a minimum number of sick days. A bill in Congress would mandate that businesses with 15 or more workers provide at least seven paid sick days per year.

As the Healthy Families Act is making its way through Congress, some states are taking up the issue on their own. The California Assembly in May approved legislation that would give workers one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, the Los Angeles Times reported. A similar statewide ballot issue in Ohio is also being considered.

The legislation is being debated against a backdrop of reductions in sick leave. Some companies are lumping it together with vacation time. "Sick time is changing," said Kim Stattner, an expert on absence management for Hewitt Associates, which provides human resources programs and consulting. "Some employers look to generate savings from cutting sick time because they are trying to mitigate the cost increase of medical benefits," she told the Times.

Merrill Lynch, for example, last year cut guaranteed sick days for employees from 40 to three. According to Stattner, most companies that provide paid sick days offer about 10 a year.

The United States is also the only country where paid vacation time is not guaranteed by law, among the 21 richest countries in the world. And those workers who have vacation time often don't take all of it, opting for long weekends away rather than week-long stretches of down time.

"Many Europeans take six weeks," writes columnist Aisha Sultan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Their governments legislate mandatory vacation time. Imagine."

"About a third of us 'give back' paid vacation time we've earned to our employers. For most of us, it's impossible to make a clean break from work when we're away. We're tethered to our voicemails, e-mails and PDAs," continued Sultan.

The Workforce Institute conducted a survey that showed 69 percent of U.S. workers polled plan to take time off over the summer. Board member Steve Hunt advised employers to encourage their employees to take vacation time so they can recharge and avoid burnout. Think of it as a way to keep up work performance and satisfaction.

A few ideas on how to handle vacation time that balances the needs of the business and the employees:

  • Create clearly written policies regarding time off requests.
  • Use software that helps employees and managers easily track their time taken and time accrued.
  • Consider flextime during the summer. Perhaps four, 10-hour days would work well for certain employees and could reduce absenteeism.

"If you've still got a job - and it's one that affords you paid time off - TAKE IT," writes Sultan. "There are documented health benefits: lower risk of heart attacks, depression, marital strife. We are more productive when we've taken a break."

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