As the coronavirus pandemic begins to come under control, Americans are being struck by another affliction: the itch to travel.
Workers nationwide were forced to delay vacations last year when COVID-19 cases were out of control.
Now, as more people are becoming fully vaccinated against the virus and positivity rates are decreasing, employers are dealing with workers' pent-up demand for time off.
Americans typically leave millions of vacation days on the table every year. A study conducted by the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics and Ipsos published in 2019 found that U.S. workers failed to use 768 million vacation days, 236 million of which were forfeited completely.
Don't expect that to be the case in 2021, said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president for Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement firm based in Chicago.
“This year, employers should prepare for their teams to use their time off and actually disconnect from the office as they reconnect with loved ones they haven't seen in a year or more,” he said in a statement.
“Many workers will make plans to see loved ones exactly two weeks after their second shot. May and June will likely see millions of American workers take vacation time, and not just because it's the summer,” he said.
Challenger advises employers to encourage their workers to take vacation time to reconnect with their loved ones, but also to take steps to ensure that crucial work will be covered.
“It's going to be difficult to deny vacation time to someone who hasn't seen their loved ones in over a year,” he said.
Time-off requests are returning to normal volumes at Valbruna Slater Stainless Inc., said Tiziano Briozzo, the firm's local general manager. It started with spring break.
“People really want to take vacations,” he said last week. “Last year, nobody went anywhere.”
The operation at 2400 Taylor St. was classified an essential business; it remained open throughout the pandemic despite reduced demand. Even so, Valbruna Slater kept its full workforce and paid full wages.
Some days, that meant assigning workers to do cleaning. Others, it meant building up the company's stockpile to fill future orders, Briozzo said.
Valbruna Slater produces stainless steel and nickel alloy bars in various shapes and sizes for the oil and gas, automotive and biomedical industries, among others. Customers cut or machine the raw material to create auto parts, airplane parts, medical implants and other finished pieces.
Workers get two weeks off during the plant's annual summer shutdown, but some employees receive more paid time off.
“If they want to take vacation, we try not to say no unless we absolutely have to,” Briozzo said. “Other than that, we try to be flexible.”
“We value the relationship with workers,” he added.
The Italian steelmaker doesn't allow its workforce to get so lean that a few absences stop production, Briozzo said. The local operation is hiring for five to 10 open positions, he said.
“If we were 20 people short and you add vacations on top of that, we wouldn't be able to function,” he said.
Challenger encourages employers to be flexible. He said office workers shouldn't have to choose between travel and being available to the boss.
“The shift companies made to remote work during the pandemic will make it easy for workers to request to work from a different location for a week or two at a time so they can see their families and friends,” he said. “This will undoubtedly increase morale and maintain productivity.”
MAKING IT WORK
Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. offered the following tips for employers to handle the potential wave of postvaccine vacation requests:
• Allow them. Fifty-one percent of respondents to the firm's recent survey reported they are taking extra efforts to address worker mental health during this time. Nothing will help more than giving workers the time needed to see families and friends again. Encourage workers to use their vacation time and disconnect from the workplace.
• Distribute the workload. Make sure multiple staffers are trained on tasks that are essential for the company to function day to day. Generally, entire teams cannot take time off simultaneously, but every person on a team should be able to accomplish the basic responsibilities of another team member. Have staffing available to cover vacationing workers.
• Encourage planning ahead. Give workers time during their workdays to work on projects that can be completed before they go on break.
• Foster open communication. Create an environment in which workers may openly communicate that they need help completing work or need to take time off.
• Use remote work to cover crucial deadlines. Most workers converted their entire position to remote work during the pandemic. If a deadline falls during a paid time off request that cannot be rescheduled or avoided, allow workers to use a mix of time off and remote work to spend time with their loved ones.