July 13, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

The main thrust of some excellent reporting from National Geographic was to chart how “in the past few weeks, 59 counties with at least 50 cases have experienced a rise in cases per capita on par with or worse than New York City’s peak. When looking at total cases since the pandemic’s start, 536 counties have case densities worse than one in 100 people.”

The point is that for all the attention that we paid to what was happening in New York City, many towns around the country are measuring cases that are near or worse New York City’s COVID-19 outbreak when you consider population density. (No doubt you saw that Sunday, Florida’s new cases exceeded any single day New York experienced.)

(From National Geographic)

NatGeo caught my attention this weekend by embedding COVID-19 trend graphics within the copy alongside mentions of each state. I do wish the graphics had been hotlinks.

(Screenshot/National Geographic)

People are putting off vacations

This should be high vacation season. But we are not scheduling our vacations. The Wall Street Journal said:

Workers at roughly 3,000 companies tracked by human-resources software company Zenefits, a subsidiary of YourPeople Inc., submitted approximately 63,000 requests to take vacation in April and May. By comparison, about 120,000 requests were submitted during the same time last year. Data from Namely, an HR software startup, shows a similar trend, finding that employees at 1,300 midsize firms used 14% less paid time off in May 2020 than they did in May 2019.

The Wall Street Journal story said some people feel that taking time off right now feels selfish or like they are “slacking off.” I suspect that in newsrooms where people have gone out on sick leave it might not be easy to get time off.

Essential workers, especially health care workers, can’t think of scheduling time off for a vacation right now, so the use-it-or-lose-it days pile up. Some thoughtful companies are suspending those rules for such workers this year.

The Society for Human Resource Management posted this:

A substantial number of firms — 42% — have made or are planning changes to PTO, vacation and sick-day programs to address the situation, according to a survey by consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. To minimize employees’ lost days, 24% of companies are planning to increase carryover limits. Meanwhile, a smaller share — 16% — are requiring employees to take vacation time to reduce the build-up, and another 22% are planning or considering the same policy.

Experts caution that employers should tread carefully when changing PTO policies. Many individuals are already stressed by the tumult triggered by the virus and don’t want to grapple with any more twists and turns. “It (time off) is the most emotional benefit we have. It is the most valued,” said Jackie Reinberg, North America consulting leader, absence, disability management and life at Willis Towers Watson. “People don’t have a lot of control right now, and they are trying to control what they can.”

HR Dive, a human resources website, said:

A May survey of U.S. workers by Robert Half found more than one third planned to save vacation time for later in the year, and more than one quarter said they would take fewer days off compared to last summer.

“Universally, we’re hearing from employers that employees are taking less time off than they would have when the pandemic started,” Rich Fuerstenberg, senior partner at HR consulting firm Mercer, said in an interview. Jamie Coakley, VP of people at New York-based information technology services firm Electric, concurred in an email statement: “Many employees have paused upcoming vacation plans, not only for fear of traveling and keeping their families safe — but in many cases, because they’re anxious about job security as well.”

And then there is a concern that you might need those vacation days as sick days if COVID-19 comes to your home. The Wall Street Journal reported:

The pandemic has led some companies to rethink their vacation policies. Madwell LLC, a Brooklyn-based creative agency, shifted to an unlimited-vacation policy after the onset of the pandemic, says Michelle Miller, director of people and culture. The change was meant to address workers’ reluctance to take time off and recharge and also to alleviate fears of losing paid time off during illness or to care for a loved one, she adds.

The government requires businesses with fewer than 500 employees to provide 80 hours of paid leave for COVID-19 illness or quarantine.

There is a line of thinking that is connected to how schools will operate this fall. Parents are starting to worry about how they will take care of their kids if schools conduct classes virtually, so parents are banking PTO days to be home with kids who cannot go to school.

The Chicago Tribune wrote:

“As people slowly get back to the office there could be a PTO bomb whereby everyone will want to take their PTO by year’s end,” said Brian Alcala, an employment attorney with Nixon Peabody who represents management.

“Vacation-hungry” employees with stockpiles of unused leave present a PTO crunch at one end of the spectrum, said Philippe Weiss, president at Seyfarth at Work, which consults companies on workplace issues. At the other end are “PTO-poor” employees who have exhausted their time off due to the pandemic and will be out of luck if an emergency arises before year’s end, he said.

In my research for this post, I found few — darn few — mentions of companies that were thinking about buying back vacation days, which only really makes sense if it is the kind of business that has to pay overtime or hire a part-timer to fill in for vacationing workers. Plus, how many businesses are flush enough with dough to pay more right now?

You need vacation time

There is a fair amount of research that says people need vacations — or at least a break from working. Psychology Today reported:

A corporation, TSheets, recently conducted a study of how many days of paid time off employees are earning and just how many days these employees are not taking. There’s a pretty big discrepancy between these numbers — they’ve estimated that over 573 million vacation days go unused.

The same article said:

If a woman allows six or more years to pass between vacations, she is 8 times more likely to develop heart disease. Men who forego their annual vacation times have a 32% greater risk of dying of a heart attack.

You’ll be more productive if you get out of the office for some R&R, too. For every 10 hours of vacation time taken, productivity improves 8%.

People who use their vacation days regularly are also more loyal to their employers and less likely to leave their jobs. And happy employees make for more profitable organizations.

‘Staycation’ trends on Google searches

Maybe you are like me. Our boss keeps telling us to take some time off and I have a ton of vacation days built up and I keep asking, “To do what?” Lots of people seem to be in the same spot. They are searching for “staycation” ideas that they can do because they don’t have any money and can’t go where they want to go because of COVID-19.

(Screenshot, Google Trends)

Every week, my wife and I watch some cable show about buying recreational vehicles, even though I have not been camping since 4-H Camp and there is no chance we are “RV people.”

Good Housekeeping offered 15 “amazing staycation” ideas that sound just awful.

Runners are racing in ‘virtual marathons’

The big meets have been canceled but runners gotta run, so they are using apps to race each other in virtual marathons. Two apps, MapMyRun and Strava, have grown a lot since the pandemic hit.

One of the coolest fads is Strava Art, in which runners build routes that spell out words or draw a picture. GPS art is not new — it has been around since 1994 — but was more popular with bikers and even pilots.

Runner’s World has a nice collection of Strava Art.

(From Runner’s World)

Some of these runners have posted remarkable routes. This is Lenny Maughan’s Instagram page. His bio says he’s “the human Etch-a-Sketch.” Lenny is from San Francisco.

(From Strava)

Have you seen the virtual bike races, like the virtual Tour de France? They involve actual racers on stationary bikes connected through an app called Zwift.

Roller coasters are banning screaming

This is one of those things you will tell your grandchildren. “Oh yes, back in 2020, they even banned screaming on rollercoasters because they were afraid we would spread the virus.”

Theme parks in Japan started the “rule” but people are not following it.

The way we work now

(Screenshot, Business Insider)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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