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Commerce on Christmas : Workplace: There may be no place like home for the holidays. But for firms and employees alike, working on Christmas has its payoffs.

December 26, 1990|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ah, Christmas. It's a time of peace and goodwill--and a chance for many businesses and workers to make extra bucks.

Some retailers stayed open Tuesday, as they have on Christmases past, to get a leg up on rivals and burnish their reputations for customer service.

For many movie theaters and such theme parks as Disneyland, it's considered too good a business day to pass up.

But how do you get people to work on Christmas--especially if you want to limit the upset to their personal lives?

Relying on volunteers as much as possible and loosening up the dress code helps. So does allowing flexible work schedules and family visits.

Perhaps the best solution, though, is stuffing some extra green into employees' stockings, er, pay slips.

Jane Spodarek, a cashier at the Hughes market in Sherman Oaks, didn't have to think twice when asked why she was working on Christmas.

"I'm going skiing for a week in Utah, and I need the money," she explained. Under the local supermarket industry's union contract, Spodarek earned three times her normal pay of $13.65 an hour for working Tuesday.

Still, Christmas work can be a touchy issue. In Southern California, Local 770 of the United Food & Commercial Workers union has shot down contract proposals by Sav-On that would let the drugstore chain operate on Christmas.

"There are very few days where people are privileged to know they can stay home with their families and not be pressured to work," said Andrea Zinder, research director for Local 770. Requiring work on Christmas, she added, is "poor for morale and objectionable."

Zinder lamented that Thrifty Drug, Sav-On's bigger competitor, has a union contract that allows it to operate on the holiday.

Thrifty has done business on Christmas for years, she explained, and it would be difficult for the union to take away the prerogative.

A common holiday staffing technique in private industry is to seek volunteers and then fill in the remaining openings by scheduling the workers with the least seniority.

That's essentially what's done at Disneyland, although flexibility is limited because the Anaheim theme park operates with a full staff of about 12,000 workers on Christmas.

Unionized hourly employees at Disneyland get paid at the holiday rate of time-and-a-half--in other words, 50% more than their usual rate, a widespread practice.

Hughes--the only major Southern California supermarket chain to keep all its locations open on Christmas--staffs its stores strictly with volunteers, as required by the supermarket industry's union contract.

For the police, firefighters and other public- and private-sector workers who provide essential services, working on Christmas usually isn't a matter of choice, however. For Los Angeles County firefighters, if your normal work shift falls on Christmas, you have to work--and at your normal rate of pay.

Likewise, many part-time employees find themselves scheduled to work a full day on Christmas for the same $4.25-an-hour minimum they earn year-round.

Meanwhile, even when staying open involves higher payroll expenses, many firms say the cost is well worth the benefits.

For instance, staying open on Christmas enables Hughes to "hopefully, pick up customers who normally don't shop with us," said Harland Polk, senior vice president for sales at the 49-store chain.

Moreover, many Hughes stores are in heavily Jewish sections of the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

For other retailers who don't have to face their usual competition on Christmas, the holiday is a big money maker.

Thrifty's stores, for example, enjoy about twice as much business as on a typical day. Big sellers are batteries for new toys, film, flashbulbs and last-minute gifts, such as cosmetics.

For all the places that commerce is transacted on Dec. 25, most retailers and consumer service firms--and nearly all industrial companies--still opt to stay closed on Christmas.

Roger Thorpe, director of technology at Active Memory Technology in Irvine, a maker of parallel processing computers, was working with his engineering crew Christmas Eve on development projects that could easily have kept the engineers busy six or seven days a week.

But Thorpe insisted that the team take time out for Christmas--and he said he would change the office's electronic security password to keep his colleagues from coming to work.

"It's nice to have one day off a year," said.

That's the sentiment, too, at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, which was closed Christmas Day. "The Knott family always believed that Christmas was a day to spend with your family," said spokesman Stuart Zanville.

It's not clear where the trend in Christmas work is headed.

Some experts suggest that retailers will increasingly stay open to serve the growing number of two-income families who have too little time to prepare for Christmas.

Yet supermarkets that for similar reasons started staying open 24 hours a day a few years ago have been reducing night hours at some of their stores.

Also, department stores show no sign of budging from their closed-on-Christmas stance, at least partly out of concern for their public image.

Jack Brown, head of the Colton-based Stater Bros. supermarket chain, says he resisted opening on Thanksgiving when most of his competitors started operating on that holiday about five years ago. He relented in 1988 for competitive reasons.

Now Brown says he is hoping to save one last holiday, Christmas, from becoming a work day.

"It's a special day," he said. "But at the same time, we're in a very competitive business. And if all the other chains are open, we'd have to reappraise our position."

Times staff writer Dean Takahashi in Orange County contributed to this story.

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