MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
It's the time of the year for adding up every hour, every day of vacation time you've built up. But what if you didn't have to? What if you could just take time off whenever you wanted for however long you needed? For some American workers, that utopian dream is reality. For the first time, one percent of U.S. companies now say they offer workers unlimited vacation and, yes, unlimited paid vacation.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden, just back from her own measly two weeks off, explains how this can possibly be real.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: I know, it sounds crazy.
Ms. ROSEMARY O'NEILL (President, Social Strata, Inc.): And when I said unlimited paid leave, no strings attached, there was a moment of: Are you punking us? Is this a joke?
LUDDEN: That's Rosemary O'Neill, and it wasn't a joke. She and her husband own Social Strata, a social media company in Seattle. Early this year, they wanted to help an employee in crisis. Their financial officer was struggling to care for a badly injured husband and keep up her work. So the O'Neills talked about letting her take off whatever time she needed. After all, she was a hard worker. They trusted her. Then, they realized that was the case with all of their 10 employees.
Ms. O'NEILL: My husband, Ted, said, well, why don't we just do it for everybody?
LUDDEN: That was a Friday. They called a Monday morning meeting and, as Rosemary puts it, dropped the bombshell. O'Neill says the new policy is about a lot more than just letting employees spend August on the beach.
Ms. O'NEILL: People have lives, and we want them to be able to - I don't know - take a pottery class or go to their child's play or help a relative who's sick.
Mr. BRIAN LENZ (Senior Software Engineer, Social Strata, Inc.): Everybody's a doubter, like, oh, that can't really be true.
LUDDEN: Brian Lenz is Social Strata's senior software engineer. He was grateful for the new policy when he became a father in February.
Mr. LENZ: And I took six weeks off for that, so that was a real blessing just to be able to have that time with my wife and daughter, that bonding experience.
LUDDEN: Why the uptick in unlimited leave now? Studies have long shown that - believe it or not - flexibility like this makes workers more productive and engaged.
But Lenny Sanicola suspects something more. He's with the human resources group WorldatWork, which surveys company benefits. Sanicola is struck that with all the perks being cut this recession, vacation time has held its own.
Mr. LENNY SANICOLA (Certified Benefits Professional, WorldatWork): Perhaps not being able to provide other rewards, some companies said as long as the work gets done and the productivity that we are looking for is achieved, you don't have to track your time and you can take unlimited leave.
LUDDEN: Of course, Sanicola says this is limited to white-collar professionals. He's never heard of unlimited leave for hourly workers. You can imagine a factory grinding to a halt without a steady workforce. In fact, the U.S. is alone in the industrialized world in that millions of mainly low-wage workers have no paid vacation at all.
Some critics worry that in a culture of workaholics, unlimited vacation might really mean no vacation. That without a specified time to be off, employees might feel pressured to always be on.
The movie subscription service Netflix has had unlimited leave for a decade.
Mr. STEVE SWASEY (Vice President of Corporate Communications, Netflix): I personally am enthusiastic about my job, and I don't mind checking my BlackBerry when I'm climbing ruins in Guatemala and Honduras, which I've done.
LUDDEN: But Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey says that's not a company requirement. He calls traditional vacation and that whole 9:00-to-5:00 workday a relic of the industrial age.
Mr. SWASEY: We have instances of engineers who work pretty much around the clock because that's the way they work, and then they take two months to go visit family in India. And that's fine. We have instances of people who never take a vacation for three years and then take a 90-day trip someplace. But they've earned it.
LUDDEN: At Social Strata in Seattle, yes, there are still people in the office. Time off is managed around work and deadlines. And Rosemary O'Neill says this vacation season doesn't seem much different than last - almost.
Ms. O'NEILL: Well, I took a longer vacation than normal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUDDEN: After years of devoting themselves to their business, O'Neill and her husband took their three young children on a month-long cross-country road trip. She says she hopes it will inspire employees to set off on their own adventures - really.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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