LA GRANDE ILLUSION

Many, many years ago, before even beginning the long road into academia in graduate school, I worked at a collection agency. Collection agencies pay well and I needed money after graduating from college with a mountain of credit card debt, not to mention the student loans. Collection agencies pay well because they are terrible places to work. It helped somewhat that I was in a semi-managerial position, which is to say that when the people who owned the place and were properly "in charge" were absent, which was often, I was their stand-in.

As is the case with most wealthy white male businessmen, they did not believe in paid holidays. If memory serves, Christmas was a paid holiday (Jewish employees swapped out another day in December and worked Christmas) but we always worked on the 24th and the 26th. This struck, and strikes, me as ludicrous and uniquely American. Since the principals took nearly the entire month of December off – as Job Creators this was their god-given right, of course – I was inevitably "in charge" during the holiday season. One year I spoke with the owner on the 24th and requested permission to let everyone go at noon. Nobody was working anyway. It was December 24. With Dickensian fortitude, he declined the request and insisted on keeping everyone there all day. With boldness bordering on heroism, by about 2:30 I announced that This is Ridiculous and everybody should just go home.

It was ridiculous. We go through this bizarre American charade of showing up to work and doing next to nothing because to close and to give the workforce actual time off would be, I don't know, slothful? Insufficiently Puritan? It was just ludicrous. Most of a collection agency's activity in our particular niche (hospitals) involves being on the phone with insurance companies and hospital business offices. Since those places tended not to be open (or to be as, uh, relaxed toward working as our office) during the last few weeks of December, nothing was getting done. Why we could not all just admit, "Hey, nobody's doing any work anyway, why don't we all just go home?" was beyond me. It still is.

How much work are you doing today? How much work will you be doing all week? My guesses are "not much" and "very little." Yet just to make sure you understand your place, you have to show up anyway. The boss(es) won't be in attendance, of course. They're in Vail or the Caribbean or one of the other places populated with the deserving few during this time of year. If you're in, say, retail or restaurants it makes sense for you to be at work right now, at least economically, because you're actually working. You might even be busy. But my guess is that a lot of you are sitting around an office checking Facebook every 90 seconds and having long, frequent conversations with your coworkers that serve mostly to fill time.

It's idiotic. Go home. Or at least go to the bar. Tip well.

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55 Responses to “LA GRANDE ILLUSION”

  1. Andrew Laurence Says:

    I'm actually fairly busy this week, though a lot of it is paperwork and bureaucratic BS I've been postponing so I can help actual customers solve actual problems.

  2. Nick Says:

    Time off around Christmas? What are you, French?

  3. schmitt trigger Says:

    Or even worse, a Social-Democrat from those hellish places like Sweden or Norway.

  4. freeportguy Says:

    "Yet just to make sure you understand your place, you have to show up anyway. The boss(es) won't be in attendance, of course."

    For all the hatred we've heard about it over the years, this sounds awfully like the days of the good ole Soviet Union, where in absence of decent pay, supervisors got their perks through 1) getting permissions others didn't get, and 2) ruling over other people's lives.

    This only highlights that communism and capitalism share more human traits than they are willing to admit, including HUMAN PETTINESS.

  5. Tom Says:

    I work from home so Christmas Eve is just another Thursday for me.

    I have a lot of stuff to do (paid and non-paid work) but I do it on my own terms. As long as I make my deadlines and show up for conference calls, my bosses are just fine with it.

  6. Rob Says:

    I work in an auto shop. The normal level of insanity and stupidity goes way the hell up this time of year.

  7. the JC's BruceJ Says:

    If the Jerb Creattuh's treated their employees like they treated themselves, how could the JC's possibly feel superior? Those days in Vail and Steamboat and Gstaad would just, lose all their lustre knowing that their slav…err, 'employees' were not yoked to the wheel.

  8. Rick Says:

    At the office, doing some leisurely website development, considering some presents for myself now that everyone else is more than adequately taken care of.

    Work is always horrible and wonderful. Horrible in that after 20+ years I'm still trying to adjust to office life after a previous existence playing (jazz, r&b, etc) in clubs and concert halls full time. It's a lot like the end of Goodfellas. Wonderful in that I actually get paid real money, rather than having to wrestling money away from club owners every week, so there's that.

  9. mothra Says:

    Well, I wish I could go on home because nothing is getting done, but I would lose my job if I did. Plus, I am relatively busy this year. However, I do work at a law firm where the partners all have the idea that if they give us more than a bare minimum of time off then somehow we will start taking advantage of them. They apparently are unaware of the multiple studies which have shown that workers who have adequate paid time off are actually MORE productive.

    *sigh* I never thought I'd be a wage ape living for the weekend and the occasional paid holiday, but here I am.

  10. Oblio Says:

    My work is involved with automotive marketing, both domestic and Korean brands. Even though our main clients will be closed from the 24th thru the 4th, we will be thrashing to do the work they scheduled ahead and we'll only get off on the 25th and 1st. We'll have crews on-location both holiday weekends, and I expect to be buried in year-end reporting and firefighting over the next two weeks, same as always. We are grateful for the business, as we almost closed our doors in the bad years 2006 thru 2009, but things started turning around in 2010 (wonder why?) and now we are honkingly busy. The good news is that even though this place is crazy sometimes, I love the work and almost all the people I work with, an added bonus… the bosses are dicks, but what bosses aren't? BTW, THANK YOU for your AWSUM BLOG, ur one of my daily touchstones. Mele Kalikimaka!!!!!

  11. JustRuss Says:

    I work at a university, you'd think we'd have nothing to do but this is actually when a lot gets done by non-academic workforce. We still take time off though, and nobody gets bent about it.

    I once met a couple who owned a collections business, you might have worked for them. They were nice enough when hanging out at their lake house, but not people I'd care to work for. Didn't stay married long from what I heard.

  12. B-iLL Says:

    I work at a large advertising agency and the 2-3 weeks leading up to xmas are the busiest of the year. Luckily, we get 12/24 – 1/4 off. As evil a reputation the advertising industry has, by and large most agencies are off for the last week & a half without docking employee pay. A lot of people are out of the office anyway and there's candy all over the place. Not a bad deal!

  13. sluggo Says:

    Off for a week and half starting tomorrow. I should knock out some reports this afternoon, I may or may not. They can most likely wait til 2016.

  14. Interrobang Says:

    Believe it or not, I have deadlines in the next few days, so I'm on the clock. The company I used to work for shuts down for a couple weeks over the end of the year (which I always thought was kind of a raw deal, because they made us give up 3 days of our already-reduced-since-the-buyout [of the company I worked for when they bought us] paid time off), but this new one doesn't. They close at 1 on the 24th (ridiculous), and reopen again on the 27th, close in the afternoon of the 31st and open again on the first business day of the next year.

    Since I'm a subcontractor now, I don't get any paid time off. Or benefits. I'm hoping I continue getting the hang of this new shit quickly so they put me on regular hire when my 3-month probation is up. *sigh*

    On the other hand, my billing rate is a pretty sweet $30/hr.

  15. Nate Says:

    I work as a transport driver at a non-profit spay/neuter clinic. Tomorrow is the last day of work until after New Year's Day. We get Thanksgiving, Labor Day, and the 4th of July off too.

    I got pretty lucky in that aspect of this job.

  16. Jimcat Says:

    In the health insurance industry, many contracts begin on January 1st. The last days of the year are insanely busy as the companies scramble to make sure that everything is properly set up. Of course a lot of this is due to procrastination and incompetence in the previous months, on the part of both the providers and the clients.

  17. Gil More Says:

    Former union construction worker out of Chicago. No paid sick days or paid holidays. "Take what you can afford" was the time off policy. Pay & bennies were off the charts fantastic though.

    That said, all contractors will give you a half day off for Christmas Eve and NYE, if you weren't on a time and materials job that the mill, refinery or utility wasn't clocking your time when you spun the turnstyle.

    "Admiration day" was a term used early on. A day to admire the work you had completed earlier in the week. Keep a tape measure in your hand and look busy.

  18. Katydid Says:

    My customer is mostly all gone now, using end-of-year use-or-lose leave. They'll be back in mid-January. In the meantime, most of them have set high expectations for my ilk, the people who actually do the work, and I've been dealing with a lot of crazy, nonsensical requests from desperate people who can't figure out what the customer wants, but knows their jobs are on the line if they don't produce. They've closed down the workplace around the holiday, so even if I wanted to work, I'm forced to squander my leave.

  19. Freecookies Says:

    I remember Sun Microsystems acknowledged this and sent everyone home for the last two weeks of the year.

    They did this without pay though, IIRC.

  20. Robert Says:

    The winter holidays are an interesting time* to be in the civil service. Thanksgiving and Christmas are one day holidays, and every year was a scramble to get leave scheduled far enough in advance so everything was "covered". Oddly, seniority wasn't an issue; priority was given to those who had not had their preferred days off the previous year. By the time I retired, leave requests were being turned in by March. The petty squabbling over who actually HAD gotten Friday after Thanksgiving the previous year, and so on, was just as vicious as you're thinking. We did normally get half day Christmas Eve off as 'unofficial' leave'.

    Since we had the generous leave days for which the civil service is known, the early leave requests policy was intended to forestall the inevitable 'but I have to use my use or lose, so let me have Christmas to New Year's' nonsense. I always took a week off for my birthday, so it was never a problem for me.

    My father worked for the post office his entire career, and said that he never enjoyed Christmas until he retired.

  21. Skipper Says:

    Weekends off, holidays off — all came in thanks to the unions. One of the reasons the unions had to be destroyed. Retirement will be next.

    Early in GWB's first term, one GOP honcho actually said that retirement was a "liberal invention" and that we needed to get back to a system where people just worked until they couldn't any more.

    He was yanked off stage like he had had a wardrobe malfunction, and his statement went down the memory hole.

  22. slimlove Says:

    Forget this week; it's next week, between the holidays that is truly dead in my industry. My current office stays open, but about 90% of people will be out. My previous place of employment, we actually did close between the holidays, but you, obviously, didn't get paid for those days. You had to take vacation or comp time, or just take it as unpaid time off. People were not happy about this.

    I think this is the real reason places don't close and we all just sit around commenting on blogs for 8 straight hours: because if a place closes, it either has to pay workers to do nothing at home instead of at work, or deal with resentful employees complaining because they have to use up their vacation hours or miss a few days of pay. The first is un-American, obviously – what is this, commie France? The second is more palatable for most employers – who cares about resentful workers? – but when you work in non-profits, nominally committed to treating workers decently, it can be an issue. So everyone just pretends to work.

    But hey, on the upside, I've had time to clean out my desk drawers this week.

  23. Amaryllis Says:

    I am one of five secretaries. Of the 30 attorneys who work here, there are 8 currently in attendance. The other 22 are in Vail, the Bahamas, etc. I will be here on Christmas Eve, with all the other secretaries. There will be no attorneys here at all.

  24. Linda Says:

    I am a reference librarian, and we have been busy sometimes, slack others, and I can't really do anything that involves planning with other people or agencies because a lot of them are off, but it leaves time to do stuff that we can't do when we are busy, like weed obsolete, outdated books. And get prepared for the meetings that will take place next month. Slack time is not always bad.

  25. carrstone Says:

    Go to the bar?
    It'll be closed 'cause the baristas'll have read your blog, taken your advice and gone home.
    Thanks v much!

  26. mothra Says:

    Hey Amaryllis! Sounds like you are describing my office–except of the numbers of attorneys. Bring in some miniatures of Bailey's for your Christmas Eve coffee. Such a strategy has never failed me before!

  27. NYD3030 Says:

    I work for a very very very large technology company. This year they decided to force us all to use vacation to take the week between Christmas and New Years off, because accrued vacation was having a negative effect on the balance sheet.

    White collar workers in this country are insane. We're the only people (outside union members) who even get vacation yet we so resolutely refuse to use it that our bosses have to force us to take time off around the holidays. Just try and wrap your head around that – the meager vacation we receive is so sparingly used that it's become a drag on quarterly profits.

    I wonder if my kids will refuse to accept employer health insurance and retirement as a sign of fealty…

  28. el mago Says:

    Might as well weigh in. First, shut up Carrstone; barristas don't have the luxury.
    In the restaurant world, which i've long since departed, holidays and weekends belong to the civilians. I worked many a Christmas Eve, (really bad clientele, right up there with Valentine's and Mother's day) and many a New Year's eve (ugh!).
    However as a private school teacher–which was my last gig–I enjoyed a month paid with no complaints. It's the best time of year on Costa Rica's north Pacific beaches, which is where I was teaching.
    But I don't miss the classroom, the kitchen, or the beach for that matter, and as far as American holidays go . . . puhleeze. They suck as much or more than the average workplace.
    And with that I wish you all a Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo.

  29. Michael Says:

    I own a retail shop. We're busy. But yeah.

  30. Mo Says:

    Yet just to make sure you understand your place, you have to show up anyway.

    Corey Robin brings this up in The Reactionary Mind:

    the lower orders often join, and have good reason to join, the conservative cause: in fending off a democratic movement from below, conservatism gives them a taste of lordly power they otherwise would not enjoy.

    Race, as John C. Calhoun discovered, turns all whites into a ruling class:

    With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black; and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class.

    In the family and the factory, fathers and foremen get to play the part of a lord.

  31. Mimi Smartypants Says:

    I'm working a shitload. Academic science publishing. And guess what, all the junior faculty on the bylines are reachable. PUBLISH OR PERISH HO HO HO

  32. Drew Says:

    I've worked Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. But then, my boss was a workaholic and worked those days too so I didn't feel as bitter as I would had he been absent.

    I guess when you have people on salary, you figure, why pay them not to work for a week? But still. I hated having to use a vacation day if I wanted Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas off.

    That's why I'm glad Christmas Eve is a Thursday this year. Automatic 4 day weekend for me. I always hate it when a holiday falls on a weekend. It sucks when Christmas is on a Wednesday or something. This is America, so can't give people the whole week off. And you get shit for vacation days because again, America. So you come into work Monday Tuesday, get your little christmas, and back to work peon.

    People are checked out anyway. I talk to the staff. They're checked out. They're unproductive. They're thinking about Christmas. Why bother making them show up. There's coming to work, and there's working. Some managers never learn the difference.

  33. Drew Says:

    Honestly, not much is getting done the week after Christmas either. Wouldn't hurt to close down the office to give everyone a rest. Not a whole lot to do in my business right now, and if you work smart you can get ahead and build in a nice cushion so you can take a week and a half off without too much piling up.

  34. Bitter Scribe Says:

    I'm off now because I have to use up my vacation time by the end of the year. I'm trying to relax because things will go to shit after the first of the year. My boss left and I was named to replace her, a promotion I didn't want but couldn't really refuse, and now I'll have to deal with all the upper management assholes she protected me from.

    Yeah, I know, whimper whine. I got a nice raise and I guess I shouldn't really complain. But I just can't shake the feeling that for me personally, 2016 will just suck.

  35. Hazy Davy Says:

    Wrote about 900 lines of code today, actually. And I'm not even a programmer.

    But I get and agree with your point.

    The problem is the inherent difficulty in measuring many employees' performance. So we don't give the bosses an easily measured stand in excuse to rate us poorly.

  36. chautauqua Says:

    Keeping infrastructure up and running at a major hospital/research institution. Working Christmas Eve and New Years' Eve, but it's so I can save enough PTO to spend February in New Zealand.

  37. BubbaDave Says:

    I'm working tomorrow and Sunday (and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day) because we have projects to finish and both my minions are taking some vacation time. I always figured that the flip side of being the boss is that it's my job to cover for my team when they need to take time off.

    (Besides, it's so much easier to get things done once all the pesky humans are off my network!)

  38. catbirdman Says:

    I'm a self-employed biological consultant, and my most intense workload comes from March through about August. Those months are intense, because it's when all the flowers are blooming and the migratory birds are back from the wintering grounds, so it's time to find them all (or at least look for them). The rest of the year is hit or miss. If you can get a solid three days/week from September through February, you're golden. This fall/winter has been awesome, with an average of 4-5 days per week of work, going right up through today. I was handed a great little gig last week and worked it hard through today, when the report went out. I do some field work tomorrow, then I'm home free through the holidays. Spending five days with the inlaws in Arizona and a few days for myself when I get back. Then ease back into a 3-4 day/week schedule in January and February, to be recharged for the work season in March. I do love my job.

  39. Katydid Says:

    Got called in to work at 3:30 this morning to deal with a computer problem, was grumbling to myself about the early hour, when I passed the guy who fills up the vending machines, hard at work. Stopped to chat with him in Spanish (his primary language); turns out he arrives at 3 every morning because every machine in this huge building needs to be fully stocked and ready for operation by 5 am or the screaming starts from people too entitled to walk 40 feet to the next set of vending machines. I asked if he was taking time off, and he can't afford to–he's losing pay for the days the building is closed.

    Moral of the story; work sucks in the USA, but it sucks even worse for those on the lowest end of the payscale. I'm angry about being forced to use my vacation time during a timeframe the customer is gone and I could get *so much* work done, but at least I *get* vacation time.

  40. Hobbes Says:

    Instructor at UW-Madison. Our final exam was scheduled for 2:45-4:45 this afternoon because the university hates me and always puts my finals at THE WORST TIME POSSIBLE. I changed the final exam to a project the students could hand in online, so instead I'll just be holding office hours from 2:45-4:45 for the last minute panickers and then grading for the rest of the week so I can meet my final grade deadline.

    My final exam slot in spring starts at 5pm on Friday. I swear to god if I get another xmas eve-eve evening final in the fall I am going to personally hunt down the chancellor and punch her in the face D:

  41. Major Kong Says:

    This is "peak" season for us package haulers.

    I happen to be off this week only by benefit of seniority. Even then I had to bid some trips this month I wouldn't otherwise do to get the days off I want.

    I'll be right back at it on the 26th and won't get home until sometime on the 31st.

    They always get their pound of flesh out of me in December.

  42. Totoro Says:

    Retired academic, now teaching skiing to those Creatuhs visiting (very large western ski area). Rule of thumb for the ski industry is that you break even the rest of the year and make your money Christmas week. This year busy started last Sunday so I'm going to be on every day til Jan 4. Thank god we have fresh snow!

  43. doug Says:

    'Go home'
    Oops you did it again, Hero!

  44. anori Says:

    I work for a non-profit, it's not too bad. Paid holiday on Christmas Eve, half-day on the 31st. But, of course, it's a good thing that the 26th is a Saturday this year. Otherwise I'd certainly have to come in. My family members, several of whom are academics, made some comments like, "Oh, you'll get a week off at Christmas." Um, no. I do not get a week off at Christmas. Only academics think that they have the right to time off between Christmas and New Year's. But it's worth it not to have to go through all the academic mind games any more.

  45. Hugo Says:

    "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." — Soviet adage

  46. Safety Man! Says:

    Sadly the quote from A Chistmas Carol still applies,
    But Mr. Scrooge, everyone else will be closed, who are you going to do business with?

    My last job was with a consulting firm that did give the day after Thanksgiving as a paid holiday, presumably because everyone took it off anyway. As a contractor though I too played the game where if the client was closed, I either had to take a sick day or unpaid leave.

  47. Andrew Laurence Says:

    In Fall 1984, I had a Poli Sci 10 final at 7pm on a Saturday.

  48. HeidiB Says:

    Part-time academic employee here. I'm getting a few weeks off – the place is basically closed down – but only 12/25 & 1/1 are paid days! I refer to it as winter break unemployment. I'd kinda rather be working, believe it or not.

  49. wmd Says:

    I've got quite a bit of work to do this next couple of weeks – verifying a bug fix and getting it to a customer, plus getting performance data for a software release in time to note any bugs prior to code freeze.

    probably cutting out early on 12/24, but working 12/26.

  50. Katydid Says:

    December 1985, I had a final from 6 – 8 pm on 12/24, then had to travel to my parents' house out-of-state. I didn't get home until after dawn on 12/25. Other years I had finals up until the 22nd or 23rd. My own kids were done by mid-December. Have the semesters gotten shorter?

  51. Andrew Laurence Says:

    My college was on the quarter system, with 10-week quarters followed by one week of final exams, three times per year, summers off. This year, fall semester started on Monday 9/21 and ended Friday 12/4, with Veterans Day (11/11) off, for 49 days of instruction. Finals ran from Saturday 12/5 through Saturday 12/12 (eight days, like Passover). Winter quarter beings Monday, January 4, after a 23-day break. Then the same thing happens twice more through June 10.

    Another campus of the same system which is on the semester system (only two per year) started much earlier (8/19), had only five days of finals (12/14-12/18), and is now off until Tuesday 1/12.

    So I'm not sure what college has final exams or is even in session until Christmas Steve, but that sounds pretty shitty indeed.

  52. Totoro Says:

    WordPress buglet??? Looks like > 50 comments will wipe the first 50 so you only see those > 50. Shame on Ed for having too many reader/commenters!

  53. Mo Says:

    So…no more posts until after the holidays, is that it?

  54. Chris C Says:

    For the last 9 years I have been the manager of a large homeless shelter serving men, women and families. I vaguely remember when Christmas was a time to ramp down the work. Now we never work harder than we do during the period between Thanksgiving and New Years. It is brutal not only physically but emotionally for the staff which is nothing compared to what the residents experience. Through it all we have to maintain a cheerfulness that borders on wide eyed insanity. Merry Christmas!

  55. ron Says:

    I worked with a boss who was incredibly lenient on many issues in the office. For example an employee would have a "special circumstance" that would require they take an extra week of vacation and it'd be granted to them every time. But come 2 PM on any given Friday before a three day weekend there was no way in hell anybody was going home ten seconds early.

    I now make these kinds of decisions and we took the 24th off completely. Why? Because nobody wants to be here, and the idea that the world is going to collapse because of an extra day off is absolutely ridiculous.