Thursday, November 28, 2013

Woe is me, I've got to work a holiday

Aaron's eBay store
   A distinguished former colleague recently took Walmart and other big box, little box, Jack in the Box and Taco Bell employees to task in his blog for lamenting the fact that they had to work on Thanksgiving when they could be spending time with their families. And then said former colleague went on to point out that in the journalism trade, one was expected to work holidays.
   Even though I've worked more Thanksgivings than you could shake a drumstick at, I have to differ with my distinguished former colleague, although I agree with him on many other points he's made in his blog.
   Reason one is an anecdote. During the Great New York Newspaper Strike of 1978, I think it lasted 77 days or so, I worked in the sports department of one of the three "interim" dailies, a mock Daily News lookalike called the Daily Press, run by a couple of brothers from the Midwest looking to make a quick buck. The temporary newspaper offices were in a downtown office building, and heck, I have no idea where they got the computer terminals and other equipment from, probably Rent-a-Center. One day I was riding up in the elevator with some secretaries and receptionists and one of them asked if I worked for the newspaper. I responded in the affirmative, and she said I was lucky to have such an exciting job.
   These are the people who deserve to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving. You want to be a reporter, a police officer, a firefighter, a nurse, it goes with the territory, you work nights, weekends, holidays, and usually you get extra pay for doing so (although that is no longer the case in much of the newspaper industry). DFC was, of course, saying it goes with the territory, but a little compassion is in order here for people whose jobs are not as exciting and fulfilling as ours.
   And reason two: All the holidays I've worked, the newsroom has been all but deserted. Management types, fuhgeddabouddit except maybe one poor shmuck who's at the bottom of the managerial pecking order and has to supervise the skeleton crew in the newsroom. That's right, skeleton crew, DFC and I both should be namned Armbone or Legbone we've been on so many holiday skeleton crews in forty plus years in the newspaper business. So let's say 80 percent of newspaper people actually do get holidays off -- even Columbus Day at the New Britain Herald -- whereas 100 percent of Walmart and Taco Bell and Best Buy workers not only have to work but don't get any holiday premium in their paycheck. Still, no time card to punch in and punch out to make sure we're not paid any more than our minimum wage.
   Usually there isn't much news on a holiday, and the skeleton staff would get a pretty healthy "slide," or the opportunity to go home early, say on Thanksgiving, work a four or five hour shift, get your full seven or eight hours pay and the holiday premium as well (in the good old days that was time and a half plus a day of comp time, boy, although both of those perks got whacked as the industry nosedived). No such perks for your big box or fast food worker. There was one New Year's Eve 30 or 35 years ago where a bomb blew up in Times Square and there was quite a bit of scrambling on the news desk, but such holiday occurrences are few and far between.
   Thanksgiving is a time for family, perhaps moreso than any other holiday. My own family is scattered across the country, Boston, New York, Ohio, Florida, California, so I kind of relish working on Thanksgiving because I'm with colleagues. I have a lot to be thankful for, even when I was out of work and sleeping in my car I had a lot to be thankful for (that my car was insured, ran and had gas, for one thing, or is that three things?).
   I personally am thankful that stores are open on Thanksgiving, because I've already scored two bargains online, but I feel for the employees who have to handle the mobs of shoppers. As far back as the first Black Friday -- I don't remember when that was but I know I was in the newsroom the day it happened, and even then Black Friday was on a Friday, this year Black Friday began Monday online, and it begins at 6 p.m. Thursday evening at Walmart and Best Buy -- I could see the beginning of a now long established tradition, the annual social phenomenon of overflowing the mall parking lots and the stampede mentality of mobbing the stores. I don't begrudge the employees the desire to be with their families, although I suppose a good investigative reporter would discover that if Walmart closed on Thanksgiving Day and Best Buy opened, a small percentage of the Thursday night throngs at Best Buy would be composed of Walmart workers. But that's their prerogative.
   DFC noted that the one holiday, for him, that was sacrosanct was Opening Day. He's a baseball fan, and working all those other holidays got him sufficient leverage to get the night off, even in a downsized newsroom. Opening Day is just another day at the office for me, but I had my special days, too, I'd cash in my chips for the annual reunion of the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served and which turned me into an oral historian when I'm not writing headlines.
   A couple of times I've been on road trips over the Holidays. Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, try and find a cup of coffee on an interstate when every McDonald's and Burger King is closed. Then one New Year's Eve somewhere in North or South Carolina I pulled off the highway and saw the bright lights of a Waffle House. Whereas usually there would be three to five employees slinging hash browns and pouring batter onto waffle irons, there must have been a dozen workers, all in festive hats, you'd think they were having a party. Apparently they not only had to work New Year's Eve, they seemed to relish the fact, possibly because they were being paid time and a half, or maybe it was just a tradition for them, like Black Friday is for shoppers. But that's the image that comes to mind first when I think of having to work on a holiday. When life hands you lemons, make key lime pie. Use evaporated milk and graham cracker crust, and no one will know the difference.
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