Miércoles 5 de Diciembre de 2007, Ip nº 219

Hello, Vacation: It’s the Boss
Por Lisa Belkin

I just booked a brief vacation, to a warm place, now that the weather is finally turning cold and the holidays loom. I clicked through all the usual disclaimers on the travel Web site — the hotel is nonrefundable; changes to flights can be made only with a hefty fee. Then I turned my attention to trip-cancellation insurance, and something new appeared.

Would I care to buy added insurance, I was asked, that allows me to cancel my trip if I have to work?

My first thought — now that’s a policy I can use — was followed quickly by my second — it’s official: nothing is sacred.

Time was when the words “I have nonrefundable tickets” were up there with “a death in the family” and “admitted to the hospital” as gold-plated reasons for not coming to work. In the last year, however, that venerable excuse has been rendered potentially moot by at least two insurers. AIG, which introduced its plan just a few weeks ago, charges $24 to add the “cancel for work reasons” option to a travel insurance plan, while Access America, which created the category just last year, charges $19.

I have had this feeling of loss before, when change, trumpeted as progress, has swept away familiar excuses. When pre-cellphone Caller ID meant I could no longer fudge my whereabouts. (No more telling editors I was at an interview when I had not managed to get my act together and leave home.) When I boarded a cruise ship and learned that not only was there an Internet cafe in the middle of the ocean, there was WiFi by the pool. (No more telling myself I couldn’t read my e-mail messages while at sea.) When I realized it was but a matter of time before cellphones are permitted on airplanes. (No more telling everyone “I am getting on a plane and can’t be reached.”)

I don’t mean to give the impression that I never work on vacation. I almost always do, which makes me all too typical. According to a survey this year of more than 6,800 workers by CareerBuilder.com, 33 percent stay in touch with the office while they are away. My most memorable work-infected vacation was in an era before laptops, when a deadline on a magazine article collided with two prepaid weeks at a beach house. So I dragged the computer and the printer and the fax machine and the dial-up modem to the beach.

And I also don’t mean to suggest that the existence of nonrefundable tickets means that no one has ever had to cancel a vacation for work. A recent Harris Interactive poll found that 19 percent of workers have done so at least once. Not all lost deposits. But I would wager that they all felt the unique frustration that comes when time off is snatched away.

David M. Grant, the president of the LVM Group, a Manhattan public relations firm, had to cancel his vacation because he’s the boss. He had his yearly two-week trip booked to the Caribbean about five years ago when he realized that one of the employees in his small company would be on maternity leave at that time. He canceled early enough that the hotel — where he and his wife went every year — was still refundable, but it was also full on the dates he was eventually free to take time off. “So we went to Mexico instead and were disappointed,” he said.

Kathleen Cosgrove, in turn, had to rearrange a vacation for work last April because she is not the boss. She had trained for months for the Boston Marathon, then learned that she would have to be in Hawaii on that date. Determined to race, Ms. Cosgrove, a publicist, flew to Hawaii and worked the week before the marathon. She flew back to Boston on Saturday and ran the race on Monday, despite having only 10 hours of sleep in the previous three days. Then she was back on a plane to Hawaii at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, instead of taking the additional vacation days she had planned for recuperation. (Soon after, she left that employer, which she declined to name, and went to work for one with a more flexible vacation policy.)

Evo Watson was fired because she refused to cancel a vacation. Ms. Watson, who worked at a food distributor with plants in the United States and Canada, was about to leave for two weeks in Barbados — tickets paid for, time off approved — when her boss called and asked her to cancel. He didn’t tell her the reason, because he didn’t think he should have to, but in fact the company’s Florida office had been damaged in a hurricane and he needed to stay in the South rather than return to the North to replace her while she was gone.

Ms. Watson left on her cruise instead and came home to find that she did not have a job. She sued her Canadian employer, and in March a court there awarded her a year’s pay plus legal expenses. Vacation, the court said, “is a very important benefit, which should not be interfered with lightly.”

That is at the root of my sadness that one can now buy cancel-for-work policies. It is not the fact of it — after all, more expensive cancel-for-any-reason policies have long been available, so there was always a way to get your money back if you were properly insured.

What sobers me is the symbolism. The fact that scotching vacation for work has become so common, there is money to be made on it. We need those vacations. And now we can be $24 closer to leaping whenever work calls.

It makes Vicky Farrell sad, too, but she gratefully bought a policy nonetheless when AIG introduced it a few weeks ago. Ms. Farrell runs the Wee Can Dance studio for children in Hazlet, N.J., and is taking a six-week trip to South Africa starting in December.

“I wish I didn’t have to think about having to cancel, but I couldn’t book the trip if I didn’t know I had an out,” she said.

She feels reassured that not only is her $2,000 airfare completely refundable should she cancel before she leaves, but that the policy also pays for her to return home unexpectedly midtrip “if one of my teachers gets sick and I have to fly back and keep things from falling apart.” She added: “It’s not great to have to plan like that, but it’s the way life is.”

The market for such insurance makes Dan McGinnity a little sad, as well. He is the vice president of AIG Travel Guard, which created the latest cancel-for-work plan. “That’s what insurance is,” he said, “a measure of the risks we face, and I wish we weren’t all so busy that this was seen as a risk.”

  15/11/2007. The New York Times.