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Almost Any Day Can Be a Holiday For Workers Around the World


If you're an American reading this on the eve of a four-day holiday weekend, you may be benefiting from the latest trend in employee benefits in the United States.

Over the last four or five years, employers have been "breaking away from the rigidity of the calendar" when it comes to granting time off for holidays, says Jerome Rosow, president of the Work in America Institute in Scarsdale, N.Y.

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This year, many American businesses are throwing in Friday, July 5, as a holiday along with the traditional July 4, making it a four-day weekend. Employers find this is a "low-cost way to give a block of time off," Mr. Rosow says, and that "through planning you can get the work done anyway."

In the US, waves of corporate downsizing have meant longer hours for those still employed. Rosow estimates the typical workweek for a mid-level professional to be 55 hours and, for top management, 60 to 70 hours. Because employers have absorbed double-digit increases in health-care insurance costs nearly every year since the 1970s, he says, they haven't been able to make big gains in other benefits, such as pay.

That's the picture in the US. But not everywhere.

In the realm of worker time off, the US still pales next to the Europeans, especially the generous Germans.

Even nonunion workers in Germany are governed by labor contracts calling for typical workweeks of only 37 or 38 hours. Usually, they also receive six weeks of annual vacation. In addition, the average public-sector administrative employee claims another 29.2 days off - nearly six weeks - in sick time each year, the weekly German newspaper Die Woche reported recently.

Germans also take off up to 12 paid public holidays a year

(depending on the Bundesland, or state, in which they live). And then there are the "cure" vacations for people to recover from the stress of their labors, at considerable public expense.

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German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for one, is not sure how much longer Germany can go on like this. The generous provisions for time off add to labor costs, which in turn raise the price of job creation and serve as a disincentive to investment, foreign or domestic.

In April, Mr. Kohl introduced to the parliament an austerity program intended to lighten the demands the state makes on private enterprise. Putting Germany's economy into context, he said, "We live in a country ... in which workers have shorter working hours and more vacation than almost all other countries."

Germany has already given up one holiday: The traditional Protestant Day of Atonement (the third Wednesday in November) was abolished as a paid public holiday last year in a deal to finance long-term health care at home or in a nursing home.

An insight into national cultures

Public holidays are a relatively small share of workers' time off during a year, especially in Europe. But as time off, "they may be more likely to be taken" than are vacations, which can be postponed or simply not taken, an International Labor Organization official in Geneva says. He adds that the more important measure in any discussion of working time and time off is the average number of hours worked annually (see chart).

The labor issue aside, a nation's public holidays provide an index to its culture. Despite having the strongest churchgoing tradition in the developed world, the United States has only one explicitly religious national holiday on its calendar: Christmas. The other holidays are largely expressions of American "civil religion": Martin Luther King Day, Presidents' Day, and so on. (Thanksgiving Day, with an implicit religious tone, is nonetheless nonsectarian.)

France, although known as the "eldest daughter of the Catholic Church," also has a strong secular-republican streak. In addition to Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitmonday (Pentecost), Assumption Day (Aug. 15), and All Saints' Day, France also commemorates the end of the two world wars (Nov. 11 and May 8) and Bastille Day (July 14), the anniversary of the storming of the notorious prison at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.

Like much of the rest of Europe, France also observes Workers' Day, May 1. It is the (almost) anniversary of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (May 4, 1886), in which seven police officers and four workers died. The workers were demanding an eight-hour workday. Europeans are amused that they commemorate the Haymarket Riot, but Americans don't (though Americans do celebrate a Labor Day in September).

Ruling on car washes and quiet zones

In Germany, Birgit Laitenberger and Maria Bassier are the two officials in the federal Interior Ministry in Bonn who monitor state laws governing holidays. These laws determine what activities are allowed on a holiday "or, more often, what is not allowed," Ms. Laitenberger explains. Their offices are full of shelves lined with ring binders full of texts of laws governing all imaginable nuances of holiday observances.

The state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for example, requires quiet around synagogues on certain Jewish holidays.

Reformation Day, Oct. 31 (the anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1516) is not an official holiday in Baden-Wrttemberg (a largely Roman Catholic state).

Is it legal to operate a car wash on a holiday? Are theatrical presentations legal on Good Friday? Laitenberger and Ms. Bassier have the answers.

"Across Europe, holidays are not exactly rare," Laitenberger adds. "Fortunately," she says, there does not seem to be much movement toward further changes in holidays.

Anyone doing a comparison of holiday calendars of several different nations can't help noticing two things: How many countries have between nine and 12 national holidays; and how holidays tend to be bunched at certain times of the year.

France, for example, can have as many as four May holidays. Many French businesses allow workers to create long weekends by using vacation days or simply taking off the days between the holidays and the weekends. For many, the long weekends are an excuse to leave the cities for homes in the countryside, take a trip, or just go outside for a picnic.

For anyone trying to do business in France, it can be a nightmare. "You'll find that some of the people you need to talk to have taken extra time off before the holiday; others, the week after. To try to get much done in the month of May is very difficult," says a former AT&T personnel official.

French officials acknowledge the problem but don't assign it a high priority. "This practice of bridging over holidays can create problems of productivity during the month of May, but it's not really a big issue for French employers," says Bernard Giroux, spokesman for the French Employers' Association. "Compared with issues like taxation, social security, and education, it's peanuts."

Serious or not, the problems of the May "bunch effect" in France - and in Germany and other countries as well - can be explained by the traditional church calendar, which calculates a number of holiday dates from the "movable feast" of Easter.

But Japan, with its Buddhist and Shinto tradition, somehow manages to have a number of spring holidays too. There's Greenery Day, April 29; Constitution Memorial Day, May 3; and Children's Day, May 5, which features flying carp windsocks, symbolizing strength and perseverance. All this adds up to what is known as "Golden Week," which many people take off.

If Germany illustrates holidays by the book, Mexico shows that the official calendar can be deceptive. Mexico has only seven state holidays, mostly underscoring its strong nationalist streak and preoccupation with independence. There is Independence Day, a day of the Mexican Revolution, a day of the Constitution, and a day for Benito Juarez, father of modern Mexico.

But two unofficial holidays suggest the revered place of the mother in Mexican culture. Many Mexicans don't work Dec. 12, for example, to commemorate the sighting by a peasant of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the figure who has become Mexico's mother-protectress.

Or consider Mother's Day in Mexico, unofficially celebrated May 10. Mother's Day gets far more time and attention from the average Mexican than does remembering Juarez, the political leader. When it falls on a weekday, the working world grinds to a halt. Day-long traffic jams form in already crowded Mexico City. Government offices and many businesses close for at least part of the day. Even businessmen with multimillion-peso deals beg off signing a contract May 10. After all, there's no getting around taking Mom to lunch.

South Africa celebrates a new beginning

South Africa is a country whose calendar has been radically revised by recent political changes. Most of its holidays represent "important milestones in the history of the new South Africa," says Chris Koole, spokesman at the South African Embassy in Bonn. His country now observes Human Rights Day, March 24; Family Day, April 8; and Freedom Day, April 27, which commemorates the first multiracial presidential election in 1994.

Freedom Day is a new holiday in South Africa, Mr. Koole says. The other holidays have been renamed and reconstituted. "Family Day used to be the day the whites celebrated some victory or other over the blacks," Koole explains. Also new for South Africa is a Workers' Day, May 1.

These new holidays are typically observed with public speeches, family gatherings, and picnics. The South African climate is such that virtually every holiday lends itself to outdoor meals. "We grill like madmen," Koole says.

But for religious holidays, church attendance is important, too. And when South Africa shuts down for a holiday, Koole says, it really shuts down.

"Nothing is open. You can get petrol for your car, but that's about it," he says.

*Monitor correspondents Gail Russell Chaddock in Paris and Howard LaFranchi in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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