In pursuit of creating a permanent winter holiday break, Howard County government has changed its holiday schedule for 2012, requiring employees to work Good Friday and Columbus Day so they can have off between Christmas and New Year's.
For the past three years, most county employees — excluding employees classified as "essential," such as police officers and firefighters — have not had to work between Christmas and New Year's. In 2009 and 2010, employees were furloughed — forced to take the time off without pay. This past year, employees were given the time off as paid leave, a gesture aimed to make up for furloughs the previous two years.
Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins said County Executive Ken Ulman received feedback from employees who said they enjoyed the time off between Christmas and New Year's and would like it to be established as a permanent break. Many people, he said, would request those days off anyway and then have to compete with other employees in their department to have the time off.
"We also saw, too, that the workloads during that last week were much slower than usual," Robbins said.
Given those things, Robbins said the county has decided to establish a winter holiday break in 2012 by exchanging the Good Friday (April 6) and Columbus Day (Oct. 8) holidays, which have traditionally been paid holidays under the county's schedule, for the first two days after Christmas. If employees choose not to work on Good Friday or Columbus Day, they will have to use personal leave.
Christmas falls on a Tuesday in 2012, so employees will have paid holidays on Wednesday, Dec. 26 and Thursday, Dec. 27. Some essential personnel and public safety employees still will have to work and will be given two days of paid leave to use at a later date.
To create a full winter holiday break, employees are being required to use their own annual, personal or comp leave time for Friday, Dec. 28 and Monday, Dec. 31.
"If an employee does not have any accrued leave at that time, they would be charged leave without pay," Robbins wrote in an email to employees Dec. 14 explaining the changes. "We are giving you an entire year's notice so you can plan ahead and save at least two days of leave for the end of the calendar year."
Robbins said he'd prefer employees not to have to take leave without pay. Each year, he said, employees get six personal days plus annual leave, which is based on years of service. Unused leave carries over from year to year, up to a maximum of 40 days unless the employee receives special approval from Robbins
"Since Christmas Eve (December 24) occurs on a Monday in 2012 and, as a gesture of gratitude, the County Executive has authorized the approval of eight hours of administrative leave for all employees on December 24 (that means those 8 hours will not come off employee leave balances)," Robbins wrote in the email to employees.
The various labor unions have approved the 2012 holiday schedule, Robbins said, but employees have had a mixed reaction to the changes.
"For the most part I'd say 70, 75 percent (of employee comments) are positive," Robbins said.
Two employees expressed their displeasure with the changes by responding to Robbins' email, sending their comments to the county employee listserv.
One employee said she doesn't believe the county should be able to dictate when employees use their leave, referring to the two winter holiday days employees are being forced to take off. The same employee also noted that she celebrates Good Friday in the spring, the time in which Christians believe Jesus Christ was crucified and then rose from the dead three days later, and argued the county should not be able to move the holiday to a different time of year.
Another employee agreed that requiring employers to reimburse themselves for two days in the winter that are not official holidays "seems strange." He also noted that Good Friday is a holy day to many people and not just a day off.