Working The Jobs That Must Stay Open Over The Holidays
Last year, the lead up to Thanksgiving felt dominated by stories about retailers adding Thursday evening hours to extend Black Friday sales. There was, of course, an ensuing backlash, including Change.org petitions and social media posts decrying the burden these hours placed on workers and their families (and the backlash to the backlash that I saw on social media, at least, arguing that the workers chose to take these jobs, etc.). REI’s announcement about 30 days before Black Friday that they and their employees would be opting out this year was a welcome contrast.
While I personally hope this helps quell the Black Friday creep, I’d like to call attention to all the workers, not merely those in retail, who have to work major holidays.
For many years I worked on a 24-hour crisis hotline for crime victims, where we were required to work 33–50% (depending on the year) of the big six: Thanksgiving, day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years. Working on holidays that are important to you is not fun; there is no getting around that, and very little mitigating of it. I think my organization did a pretty good job of addressing it. Getting time-and-a-half certainly helped. For more mundane holidays like Presidents’ Day, we actually competed to get the shifts, since it was a real paycheck boost.
There are no perfect fixes if your work must stay open every day of the year, but staffing/scheduling policies can help. Everyone had to put in their requests off by a certain date so they could all be fairly evaluated in total. We knew the number of major days we need to each cover, so no one person got stuck with all the holidays. I’ve heard stories about places where it was all based on seniority, which meant a few people got every holiday off and a few people got stuck working terrible hours every major holiday; and about places where requests were honored in the order received, which also had the effect of freezing a few people out of any holiday off.
Because my colleagues were amazing, everyone was generous with helping each other have a workable schedule. Rather than fighting over which holidays we personally wanted off, we fought over whether someone was taking on more than her fair share and deserved more days off. I’m very grateful to my colleagues who didn’t celebrate Christmas who jumped in to make sure the days around the 25th had coverage.
For me at least, the main thing that helped was that I had such a sense of purpose in being there on the crisis hotline on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. No matter what, no matter when, if someone needed us, we were there. Always. I always found that to be magical. But it was never easy. If you think it’s hard to find someone emergency shelter on a normal day, it’s a thousand times harder on Thanksgiving. Somehow the most urgent needs seem to surface on the most challenging days.
The other saving grace was always my colleagues. We orchestrated elaborate potluck Thanksgiving feasts, usually with way more food than we could consume. I’m particularly grateful to one colleague who didn’t work on the the hotline directly, but who came by every Thanksgiving, usually with several homemade pies. He always had other places to be, dinner to get to, friends to visit, but he made a point to block out a solid part of the day to be with us and concretely show he appreciated what we were doing.
Feeling appreciated and acknowledged in the moment made a huge difference to my morale. If you do encounter someone working on a holiday, please know that taking a moment to thank them does matter.
My first year working after college in a new city hundreds of miles from home. It was a particularly cold, snowy Christmas, and because I relied on public transit that was running few buses during the holiday schedule, I had had a long, cold commute (waiting outside for a connection for 20+ minutes). I was woefully underprepared for my shift; I had brought a regular dinner and hadn’t realized how awful it would seem to eat a Lean Cuisine on Christmas. I’m not sure what I was thinking. I had planned to treat myself to a fancy drink at the nearby chain coffee store, only to discover that, of course, it was closed.
Looking back, it’s comical, but at the time I remember feeling close to tears as I prepared to microwave my dinner and contemplated the commute back. Before I started, though, one of my colleagues who was on shift that night, arrived with Chinese takeout for everyone, and kept us company over dinner. It completely turned the day around for me, and I’m still so grateful to her six years later for this generous surprise on a day when it meant so much. Though I was far away from my family, particularly difficult just out of college and far away for the first time, I was surrounded by a different kind of family.
Which brings me to my next point: I’m also incredibly lucky in that my family bent over backwards to make this work. That first year when I worked Christmas, my parents and siblings came out and stayed in my apartment. We were always a family that opened presents on Christmas, but that year we did it on Christmas Eve. Another year, we all flew to Disney World on Christmas so that I could work through Christmas Eve. Side note: flying on Christmas is actually really nice! No one does it, so it’s much less stressful than traveling during the lead up.
The contrast from crisis hotline to Magic Kingdom made for a bit of a culture shock, but it also made Disney perhaps more magical than usual. That same year we celebrated Thanksgiving a week early so that I could work over that holiday. My mom was a nurse before moving into instruction/administration, which made her familiar with alternative schedules, and we have always prioritized time as a family rather than dates on a calendar when it comes to celebrating.
All that said, I do not want to give the impression that I didn’t mind working these days, that it didn’t negatively affect me, or that I didn’t sometimes (often?) have a bad attitude about it. In some ways it helped that this was my first job out of college, so it was my normal. I now appreciate my flexibility that much more.
However, when I worked during the holidays, I preciously guarded the holidays I did have off. I wanted to make each day really count. That New Year’s Eve at Disney World I got unreasonably stressed out and frustrated with a colleague who got confused about the backup schedule and called me. I just wanted to go dance at the China pavilion at Epcot.
Even though I felt at the end of my rope and in need of that break, I should have been more patient. The truth is, it takes a toll: being away from family, feeling closed out of something that was part of your life since you were a child, is hard.
While I’ve heard people say that if you work on holidays, you likely knew you’d have to before you took the job, it really is more complex than that. Many people take those jobs because they have no choice. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with their families.
Others, like me, maybe had a choice, but are doing jobs that can’t be paused. It’s easy enough to address the retail situation since stores really don’t need to be open on Thanksgiving. But what about people working in nursing homes, emergency rooms, homeless shelters, poison control, crisis lines, fire departments? I’m not touching deployed service members here, because I know that’s a sacrifice that goes well beyond what I experienced.
I applaud efforts to curb consumerism and corporate desire for profit, and instead prioritize workers being able to be with their families on holidays, but that only addresses part of the workforce. There will always be people doing jobs that can’t ever close, and we need policies that support and protect these workers too wherever possible.
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