US workers, employers test merit of ‘unlimited vacation’

By Ivan Couronne, AFP

WASHINGTON–Unlimited vacation policies, which have so far been adopted by only a handful of U.S. businesses, have been embraced by both workers and their employers, who say the flexibility increases profitability. At Ryan, a tax services firm of 1,600 employees, the majority of workers have not formally declared their hours since 2008, and no one keeps track of time off. It’s an exception to the norm in the United States, where most people work 40 hours a week and paid leave is not regulated by law. On average, Americans receive two weeks of paid vacation per year, according to a study from the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Economic and Policy Research. Steve Thompson — a director at Ryan’s Washington office — says he often begins his summer weekends at mid-day on Fridays to avoid traffic on his way to the beach. The 32-year-old and the two people on his team generally are physically in the office from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. — so-called “core hours” — but are otherwise free to organize their work weeks. Thompson — whose job entails helping businesses reduce their property taxes, earning Ryan a percentage of the savings — says he sometimes leaves at lunchtime to do errands or work out. “If I’m feeling particularly stressed and I don’t have a meeting, I can go to the gym, work out some of the stress and then come back to work,” he told AFP. He estimated that in practice, his two team members still limited their “real” vacation to two consecutive weeks last year. But the real added value of the policy for employees is that they can easily take three-day weekends or the occasional day off, as long as they get their work done. Telecommuting, made easier by new technologies, is encouraged. Ryan’s flexibility marks a turn-around for the company, previously known for its nose-to-the-grindstone work atmosphere.

“It was a pressure-filled environment,” said Delta Emerson, executive vice president and chief of staff, who helped put in place the new policy, called myRyan. It replaced Excel spreadsheets of hours worked, which had been the way employees were formerly evaluated. Since 2008, new standards based on individual performance have governed Ryan’s employee evaluations, with 40 percent of their assessment based on financial goals and another 40 percent based on client satisfaction scores. ‘Bit of the Wild West’ The multiple benefits of unlimited vacations extend to employers as well, said Sheeva Ghassemi-Vanni, a lawyer who helps companies with similar transitions, especially in Silicon Valley. For one, businesses no longer have to devote administrative resources to keeping track of leave. And when employees leave the company, it no longer has to pay out accrued vacation time.