This Christmas week: prime time for families


Looking for the governor? Out of the office, all week.

Your lawyer? He may be home with the kids.

The secretary? On vacation with the family.

It's the week between Christmas and New Year's, days that aren't ex- actly holidays but seem more and more to be treated as one extended vacation from the cares of the office.

Call it the Great Expanding Holiday Week.

School's out. The kids are home. The week's cut short anyway by the New Year's holiday, so for many businesses, it's a convenient time to let workers take vacation days without slowing the office down. The whole business world is moving at its leisure, coming off the Christmas binge and getting ready for the New Year's revel.

In offices around Baltimore, the work force is smaller than even at the height of summer vacation season. Downtown parking lots are empty.

A stranger may be sitting in for your favorite television news anchor.

Phone a government agency or a corporate office and you're likely to find the person you're seeking is out all week -- that's if you don't get a recording saying the office is closed until the New Year.

And for those who did go to work, the office was quieter, the pace lazier.

"Yeah, check the market and do a crossword puzzle," a stockbroker on his way to his downtown office said one morning this week.

"There's a few individuals here, and they're doing some work, but the company's shut down," said John Monk, security supervisor who was answering the switchboard at McCormick & Co. in Hunt Valley.

"Everything's a little slower, so it's not a problem," said Colleen Ryan, employment coordinator at T. Rowe Price.

No one's sure when this easy-going year-end pause first crept into our work calendars. It probably was fostered by the increase in the number of two-career families. With the children home, that creates a day-care problem (if you view the holidays as a disruptive pain in the neck) or a rare opportunity for family togetherness (if you're painting the picture in rosier tones).

"If you want to go visit grandma with the kids or you want to go someplace warm or you want to go skiing, this is the time to do it," said Robert S. Hillman, partner at the law firm of Whiteford Taylor & Preston. About a quarter of the employees in his office, he said, had taken the week off.

The interest in family seems to be strong, in contrast to the workaholic '80s, said Michael Wheeler, an associate at the Conference Board, a New York research group.

"It almost comes as a package," Mr. Wheeler said. "Two people are working in a household, so people don't have the time they used to have. They're wanting more family time, more quality time at home. Attitudes are changing."

Even the researchers who might be researching this phenomenon are operating on a holiday schedule.

In Chicago, at the National Opinion Research Center, Tom W. Smith estimated that "we're down to at best one-third the normal activity." Then he laughed and said, "As I look out my hall and see all the closed offices, I think that may be on the high side."

At the Families and Work Institute, a New York research organization, Robin Hardman, director of information services, said that five of 25 employees were in the office. The rest were on vacation.

"I would bet that it has to do with the fact that the kids are home and someone's got to be there to take care of them," Ms. Hardman said. "We also have a use-it-or-lose-it vacation policy, so that's a factor. A lot of companies don't want you to carry vacation over into the next year."

Which came first? Is business slow because so many people are on vacation? Or have people gone on vacation because business is slow?

Less work is scheduled

"I'm in labor relations. Very few people schedule contract negotiations for this week," Mr. Hillman said.

Tom Hoen, a marketing associate at Alex. Brown & Sons, said about half of his colleagues were out this week. And he doesn't mind the change of pace. "I get a lot done. I get to work on projects I don't get to work on because I don't get a lot of interruptions. You might have been my first call all day, and usually the phones ring nonstop."

William Matuszeski, director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program, said two-thirds to three-quarters of the staff of his Annapolis office was on vacation.

Yesterday, he found a spot even quieter than his Annapolis office: He spent the day working from home in Washington.

In the offices of Maryland's U.S. attorney, prosecutors are still trying cases, and investigators are still doing research, but only about half the staff is working.

One of them is the boss herself, U.S. Attorney Lynne Battaglia. She knows she could pull rank and stay home, but she chose to work. "I'm still learning the job," said Ms. Battaglia, who began work in the fall.

Schmoke checks in

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who had been on vacation, arrived at City Hall for the weekly Board of Estimates meeting yesterday morning, then resumed his holiday break.

In Annapolis, the State House is doing without the weekly Board of Public Works meeting. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is on vacation in Ocean City, an aide said, and most of his staff are out.

"This is the slowest week in state government," said Joseph Harrison, a gubernatorial spokesman. "It's a good time for people to take a breather. The parking lots around the State House are maybe half-full."

So where is everybody?

Some are out of town. Some are home in front of the fire. Lots are in malls, where there is absolutely no post-Christmas slowdown.

And some, it turns out, are up off the sofa and into health clubs for vacation workouts.

"You bet," said Michael Linkous, general manager at the Downtown Athletic Club. "We have a lot more daytime activity this week and a lot less nighttime activity. Also, I'm seeing several daddies coming in with their kids during the day.

"First, they return presents. Then they're getting frustrated, and they're coming in here to work out their frustrations."

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