LENOX

With summer vacation season winding down all too quickly, here’s a fascinating, though perhaps not surprising, discovery.

Nearly 25 percent of people privately employed get no paid time off -- that’s about 26 million folks, many of them part-timers. The federal government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 20 years ago, 40 percent of private-sector workers were entitled to paid vacation and holidays.

The U.S. is the only nation in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation. Only 12 other countries, such as India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sierra Leone, don’t require employers to offer paid time off, The Boston Globe reported recently, citing a UCLA study.

Austria is the champion, granting its workers 38 paid days off (vacation and holidays) each year. France, Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium all guarantee at least 30 or more days off with pay.

What’s more, in this country, only one out of four employees takes all the time they’re entitled to. Perhaps the rest fear their workplaces can’t get along without them, or that they might be penalized if they take their full allotment. Others may dread a pileup of work while they’re away.

Even among vacationers, I’ve noticed during recent getaways that in our hyper-connected electronic culture, the job is ever-present.


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Glassdoor, a website for workers, found that two-thirds of people supposedly off the clock do some work while away -- checking work email, consulting with colleagues or supervisors on the phone, writing memos, what have you.

I’ll never forget the fellow wading in a swimming pool at a Downeast Maine resort busily discussing work issues on his cellphone while his children attempted without success to enlist him in their games.

As is typical in our inequality-based economy, half the workers in the lowest quarter of income get any paid time off, compared with 90 percent for those in the top quarter.

Scattered efforts at the federal and state level to require employers to grant some paid time off have failed to gain traction.

"From the reaction we got, you would have thought we were proposing the end of Western civilization," John De Graaf, executive director of the paid-leave coalition Take Back Your Time, told The Globe.

Corporations and their industry lobbyists push back, citing a heavy burden of regulation and expense that would result from government-required paid vacation and holidays. The few remaining unions with any clout focus on wages and benefits rather than time off.

According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., the average American worker privately employed gets a total of 10 days off a year with pay -- a combination of holidays and vacation.

For our tourism-based hospitality industry here in the Berkshires, the result is that visitors tend to stay only for long weekends, resulting in mid-week vacancies at hostelries. The once-typical three-night minimum during high season has been cut back to two at many inns.

The point of vacations is not only to avoid burnout but for families and friends to enjoy stress-free, quality time. In our area, many workers are juggling two or even three part-time jobs, and few of those, especially in the service sector, come with any paid time off.

There’s a long list of reasons for the declining quality of life in our society. The boundaries between work time and personal time are wavering, in some cases disappearing.

Many employees have home offices, with constant access to smartphones, tablets and desktop computers after quitting time. A growing number of employers encourage their staffers to be "on call," in one way or another, beyond normal working hours.

Some people go "off the grid" whenever they can. But few can afford that luxury.

A reasonable amount of time off with pay shouldn’t be an optional perk. Savvy employers realize that their workers are more productive, and thus more valuable, if they get regular opportunities to recharge. Folks who get vacation but skip some or most of it are paying a high price and inflicting harm on their families.

"Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office,’ " wrote Harold Kushner, a prominent rabbi affiliated with Temple Israel in Natick for 24 years.

Words of wisdom all too easily forgotten in our overdrive, hyperactive society.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com or on Twitter, @BE_CFanto.