Not home for Christmas: How workers cope without holidays off
December 1, 2011
By Ashley Weber
The holiday season for many signifies time spent with family and loved ones. For those working in retail positions or in the medical profession, long hours leading up to and sometimes into those holidays can make celebrating more difficult. The weeks before Christmas are the busiest time of the year for retailers who often staff more workers for longer hours in order to accommodate the high number of shoppers. More and more stores are forcing workers to choose between their jobs and their families on holidays traditionally reserved for loved ones to spend together.
While many businesses are closed or have reduced hours on days such as Christmas, the same cannot be said for hospitals and other facilities that must remain open in case of emergencies. Workers in medical professions are generally accustomed to long hours and missed holidays, as is the case with Joan, 50, who is a nurse practitioner. Her hospital has a rotating schedule with employees working two out of four winter holidays including Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s. Schedules are alternated and those working Christmas will have the following Christmas off. Joan makes the best of the situation, although this has meant missing holiday celebrations in the past. “[My family] is very accepting. They learn over time that that’s part of what it is to be a nurse, and they support that,” Joan admitted.
The hospital has other ways of rewarding its employees. Aside from offering time-and-a-half pay, they host a potluck where nurses can bring dishes to share. “Staff members tend to be kind of like family members,” Joan said. “If we can’t be with our family at home, then we can be with our family there.” For Joan, celebrating in small ways with the patients can be a rewarding experience also. Joan chose to offer holiday hats for the babies. “Patients love us when we work on the holidays,” she said. “We go in and treat them extra special on those days. They love that we’re there with them while they have to be in the hospital.”
Alysha, 24, works two jobs as an electrocardiogram technician at Mary Washington Hospital and a transportation security officer at Dulles Airport. The experiences between the two can be polar opposites. The patients at the hospital are often grateful for the time she spends away from her family. Conversely, at the airport the high amount of traffic and long delays can cause short tempers toward airport workers as travelers hurry to reach their destinations. “You will always be in their way,” Alysha said. “But sometimes you do get that random person that will thank you for taking care of them and keeping them safe.”
As large retail stores attempt to revive sagging sales in a struggling economy, much of the burden falls on employees. Wal-Mart and other large chains experimented with expanded Black Friday hours with many stores opening at midnight or earlier. Some have made the decision to remain open on Christmas Day.
A 23-year-old Wal-Mart employee who requested anonymity described the scene at her store when employees were given additional training in crowd management and safety. Although violence was reported at other stores around the country, fortunately such extreme incidents never transpired at her location. However, she says the preparation left many employees dismayed despite offers from employers to compensate for extended hours.
“The lines, the late night, the mess and the bad attitudes didn’t bother me, but I felt like a total dork in the safety vest I had to wear,” she said. “With the economy being as tough as it is, there’s a push to be more competitive than in recent years. While sometimes it means that employees may have to miss more time with their families near the holidays, we are being offered incentives and compensation for our time.” For some the incentives ease the loss of celebrating Christmas or other family holidays; however, for others nothing can replace the joy of the holiday traditionally meant to be spent at home with family members.
“Breaking tradition,” said Alysha, is the most difficult aspect for family members to cope with. “We sometimes celebrate as much as a week later,” she laments as another Christmas draws near.