Originally created 12/08/96

Businesses juggle holiday schedules to keep running



The schedule is posted and people are moaning. They have to work on Christmas. Or Yom Kippur. Maybe next year they'll be home for the holidays.

In workplaces across the country, bosses have to perform a juggling act that they and their employees dread. They must try to keep things running during holidays while handling a stack of requests for time off.

Workplaces that can't close - hospitals, many factories, airlines - have the most trouble. But even companies that close on major holidays sometimes suffer tussles over the eves - Christmas and New Year's.

"It really is a swamp for employers," says Lewis Maltby, director of workplace rights at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

"If you favor the holidays of the dominant culture or religion, that's unfair to some," he says. "But you often can't give a holiday to everybody who works for you."

Through barter, bonuses or wheedling, most scheduling holes get filled amicably. But at worst, conflicts wind up in court, especially when the delicate matter of religion is involved.

After Kathy Pielech refused to work on Christmas, a day she calls the holiest of the year, she was fired from her job taking bets at a Massachusetts race track.

"I hold that day reverent," the devout Roman Catholic said in a telephone interview from her Taunton, Mass., home. "I told them, `I'll work any other day you want me to."'

She and co-worker Patricia Reed were laid off on Dec. 26, 1992. They lost a state court case, but as a result of their suit the state Legislature is considering a bill to expand workers' religious rights.

Currently, federal law mandates that employers must attempt to accommodate worker requests for leave for religious reasons if the request doesn't place undue hardship on the business. In practice, however, companies don't even have to spend money for a replacement worker or make more than minimal sacrifices to resolve a dispute.

Workers in shift or blue-collar jobs most often run into trouble when their beliefs conflict with holiday policies.

"If you're a rocket scientist, the employer is going to say, `This religion is a bit of a hassle, but we need you, we'll accommodate you,"' said Mitchell Tyner, associate general counsel of the General Conference of Seventh Day Adventists.

As well, Protestants, Jews or Roman Catholics have fewer problems than denominations with fewer members because decision-makers are mostly likely to share their beliefs.

To keep workers happy and businesses running - whether on religious holidays or the Fourth of July - companies use an array of carrots and sticks.

The big accounting and tax firm Ernst & Young allows professionals to take holidays according to their clients' needs. A Dupont factory in Edgemoor, Del., that's open year-round making pigment doles out holiday time according to seniority, and asks for volunteers if there's a crunch.

The owner of Ratner's, a venerable kosher restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side, has a handy solution. He closes his frozen foods factory if he needs extra hands at the restaurant.

The eatery is one of the few open on Christmas Day in New York City, yet many of its workers want the day off, says owner Robert Harmatz.

So if there's a staff crunch that day, Mr. Harmatz shuts down his 15-person plant and drafts those employees into the kitchen or dining room. "We all pitch in," he said.

In a pinch, the Gold family also pitches in at their Long Island horseradish and condiment business.

Although the country's largest purveyor of horseradish closes on major Jewish and Christian holidays, workers and sometimes relatives have to work late on New Year's Eve to meet holiday appetites.

Still, Gold's draws the line at interrupting Jewish holidays such as Passover or Yom Kippur, which start at sundown, or even Christmas Eve. "We would shut down the line" rather than ask workers to stay late on religious holidays, said co-owner Marc Gold.

Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle can't shut down on any holiday. But bosses cope by asking for volunteers, rotating holiday duty from year to year, and tapping least-senior employees, said Dean Forbes, a spokesman for the 208-bed hospital.

To cheer both workers and patients, administrators try to send home as many patients as possible before Christmas, the most requested holiday for workers.

Yet for those who have to, working on Christmas isn't so bad, Mr. Forbes said. Santa visits, gifts are passed out and clowns entertain, he said.

"Because it's not a dreary time, you don't have a problem filling slots," he said.