Vacationers labor to keep work at bay


Mixing work with pleasure: It's not just for workaholics anymore.

Take Michael Reardon. He looks like your average vacationer, strolling with his wife, Paula, and son, Dutch, down the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware.

But wait. What's that black thing stuck to the waist of Michael's Bermuda shorts? It looks as if it could go off at any second.

"My wife used to get upset, but I think she understands now," explains Reardon, a purchasing manager with a Philadelphia chemical company. "You just can't get away from it all the time. I've got to stay in touch a little bit."

The "it" he can't get away from is the office. The "it" on his belt is his link from boardwalk to boardroom - his cellular phone. Reardon says he refuses to check voice mail or e-mail. But calling his office managers two or three times a day from the beach can save many hours when he returns to work.

Still, as his wife and son duck into an arcade and Reardon pushes the stroller carrying Dutch's stuffed mouse, he wistfully recalls their honeymoon to Aruba three years ago. His cell phone didn't work.

"That was nice," he said. "I couldn't call at all."

On Labor Day 2000, more American workers are letting their work lives bleed into vacations, leisure time, social time. Technology has made it too easy to stay in touch with work, what with 70 million cell phone users and the growing ease of accessing e-mail through laptop computers and other devices.

Evidence abounds of today's workers' inability to punch out at the end of the workday, to draw a thick line between work and down time.

"Cell phones are very present these days on most golf courses," said Frank Blind, the golf pro at Diamond Ridge in Baltimore County. "It's pretty selfish."

Some golf courses have begun banning the use of cell phones and pagers, as have restaurants, movie theaters and museums.

But other leisure locales can't ignore the trend. Cruise ships, for example, have begun offering Internet access and are putting phone jacks in cabins so that people can check their e-mail or plug in laptops. Holland America has even installed Internet cafes on its newer ships.

Even the Chesapeake's rockfish are hearing the bleep of cell phones.

"They all conduct business on my boat," said Jim Gray, who captains a charter fishing boat out of Ridge in St. Mary's County.

On North Carolina's Outer Banks, vacationers visit the offices of Hatteras Realty every day to use the fax machine, to plug their laptops into a phone jack or use an office computer to log onto the Internet and check e-mail. Many others are frustrated to find their digital phones don't always work on the Outer Banks, which has analog cellular service but not the newer digital service.

"You'd think they'd be coming down here to relax and leave work back home, but a lot of them bring work with them," said Contessa Fontaine, who handles vacation house rental reservations. "It's crazy."

The reasons for working while vacationing vary wildly. Some people just love to work. Others want to avoid family. And some people are suspicious of too much leisure, proof that the puritanical work ethic is still alive in America (and is also reflected in the rise in work-related stress and sleep disorders).

It's not that we're necessarily working more hours. The average work week is 39.5 hours, down from 40 in 1960, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Annual vacation time has risen some and is slowly inching closer to three weeks than two, although the United States still lags behind European countries, where four to six weeks of vacation is the norm.

But the problem (if it is, in fact, a problem) is that people are now working much more than they used to at home and in their cars, not to mention at their kid's soccer game, at the grocery store or somewhere on the Appalachian Trail.

Last year, a survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, which represents the nation's travel industry, found that 46 percent of vacationers took a cell phone on their last trip; 18 percent a pager; and 6 percent a computer. The group also found that families are taking shorter vacations and some people forfeit vacation time because they're too busy.

Cindy S. Aron, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, traces the murky relationship between leisure and labor in her 1999 book, "Working at Play: A History of Vacations in the United States."

"What is compelling about the history of vacations is the constancy with which Americans have struggled with the notion of taking time off from work," Aron writes. "Americans engage in a love-hate battle with their vacations - both wanting to take them and fearing the consequences."

In the epilogue, Aron recounts one of her recent vacations, to the Cape Cod beach house that's been in her family for decades. The family had decided long ago not to put a television in the house, but her two weeks with extended family contained laptops (including her own), cellular phones, a fax machine and almost daily visits from Fed Ex. Some relatives were disgusted.

"Technology has made it too easy to carry our work with us," she wrote. "Technology, however, does not entirely explain why work intrudes into leisure. We could, after all, choose to leave our cell phones and laptops behind."

We could. But we don't. Even in our cars - once a place to escape work, listen to that disco station or a Stephen King book on tape - we now have an earpiece dangling and connected to a cell phone, a Palm Pilot on the dash.

Then again, there are times when a cell phone can provide more relaxation than a margarita. Back at Rehoboth Beach - which was established in 1873 as a Methodist prayer camp - Lisa Teitz of Garden City, N.Y., sat in her blue-and-white beach chair, ear pressed to her cellular phone. It was noon on the first day of the family's annual weeklong vacation. They'd been at the beach two hours, and Teitz had called her home answering machine four times.

On the fourth call, she got the voice mail she was waiting for. It was the principal of her sons' school, calling to offer her a job as a school monitor.

Teitz called the principal immediately to accept, then called the school personnel director, then called to arrange for a physical. Meanwhile, sons Joe, 9, and Brian, 13, dug nearby in the sand and her husband, William, read a book.

"Thank God for cell phones," Teitz said, folding up her Ericsson and stowing it in her beach bag. "Now I can relax."

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