- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 1, 2012

While American families celebrate the Fourth of July with barbecues and fireworks this week, any apple pie Dennis Christensen eats will be in his Sacramento, Calif., office as he oversees Tony’s Fine Foods operations.

“Our business scope is too big to try to do weeks off like that,” the facilities manager said. “One day out would really put a bind in things.”

Mr. Christensen and others among America’s managerial class are facing one of their worst nightmares: a national holiday that falls smack dab in the middle of the week. For the first time since 2007, the Fourth comes on a Wednesday, neatly bisecting the workweek and posing severe staffing, productivity and motivational challenges.

The warm weather and start of vacation season tempt employees to try to schedule treasured five-day weekends, while customers demand continued service despite the holiday. Tuesday becomes, in effect, a second Friday - the least productive day of the week, according to academic studies. Companies that compete globally must deal with international corporations that aren’t about to interrupt their workweeks to accommodate another country’s Independence Day.

Other holidays, including Memorial Day and Labor Day, fall without fail on a Monday, making for a compact three-day weekend and posing minimal workplace disruptions. Even Thanksgiving, every fourth Thursday in November, is less problematic than an Independence Day that falls on a Wednesday.

A Friday or Monday holiday “would have been much easier,” said Lynn Ann Casey, CEO of the Arlington-based consulting firm Arc Aspicio. “Wednesday makes the whole week very difficult.”

Tony’s Fine Foods serves grocery stores, pizzerias and cafes across the West Coast that remain open on the Fourth. The company would lose more than one day’s business if it could not deliver on the holiday.

“It would disrupt [our customers’] receiving patterns,” Mr. Christensen said.

The food distributor closes only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. To compensate employees, Tony’s Fine Foods pays them for their time worked in addition to holiday pay.

Ms. Casey, whose firm offers mainly homeland security and defense consulting services, can sympathize. With her firm sorely understaffed, she must remain in the office to make sure her company meets its deadlines.

“I tend to take time off when it’s not around the holidays. It’s kind of backward,” Ms. Casey said. “I need to be around if a lot of people are on vacation.”

A holiday that falls midweek often costs much more than just one day of work. Accountemps employment agency found that 34 percent of managers surveyed thought a holiday caused work productivity to drop. Eleven percent of managers said Wednesday is the most productive day of the week, but 57 percent said Tuesday is the most productive day.

While it may be tempting for offices to remain open during the holiday to avoid disruption, Mark Adams, director of human resources at Massachusetts-based Employers Association of the Northeast, said there are other factors to take into account. It is common practice to give time off for the holiday even if it is not required, so forcing employees to work may have negative consequences for employee satisfaction, he said.

“Clearly, companies that contemplate that are in the minority, just because there’s so much already out there in the community,” Mr. Adams said.

According to a December survey by Mercer, a London-based human-resource consulting firm, the U.S. and Canada are among the few countries in the world that do not mandate the number of holidays that private-sector employers must allow. At 28 days per year, Britain tops the international charts for offering the most holidays. The Philippines gives the least, with five holidays per year.

Silver lining

Many other retailers - especially grocery stores - benefit throughout the holiday week. Some customers shop for their cookouts the weekend before the Fourth of July or in the evenings of the week leading up to the holiday, said Kathy Grannis, director of media relations for the National Retail Federation.

“It is one of the only times during the summer months, with maybe Memorial Day being the other one, when people have the opportunity to stock up on cookout food,” Ms. Grannis said. “There’s only one time of year retailers consider off-limits, and that’s Christmas Day.”

Ms. Grannis said Independence Day has little effect on the bottom lines for flower shops and toy stores because it is not considered a major gifting holiday.

Manufacturing companies are particularly hurt by the midweek holiday, Mr. Adams said. It’s not easy for a plant to shut down for one day and reopen at full capacity the next. Almost 16 percent of the group’s manufacturing members completely shut down their plants for the entire week and continued to pay their workers, Mr. Adams said.

But even one day of disruption is out of the question for health care providers and many other employers in the service industry.

Arc Aspicio’s employees often work through the holiday to meet their deadlines. However, Ms. Casey said she encourages her employees to work from home on the holiday and check in via email from wherever they are.

“We do whatever we can to protect that time for people,” she said.

Softening the blow

Karen L. Cates, lecturer of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said there are ways to maintain productivity even when many employees are mentally or physically checked out. She suggested making use of the employees who are still at the office, holding meetings while business is slow or testing new strategic plans.

She also said this is a good time to increase employee loyalty. For example, if an employee has been asking to work different hours or work from home, take this week to see if that is feasible.

“This is about giving people personal accountability, which a lot of theorists say is what people really want,” Ms. Cates said.

She said a week with fewer staff members can offer opportunities for fun. She recommended creating a contest to see which team, office or store location could clear out the most trash and get reorganized.

“Make a fun day to get cleaned up so that when things hit the fan you’re ready to go,” she said.

The most important thing for companies to remember when the Fourth of July falls on Wednesday is to keep communicating, Ms. Casey said. Employers must be sure to know where their employees are, and employees must remember to make sure someone is available to cover their duties if an emergency arises.

“Plan ahead, make sure everybody knows who’s on vacation and when they’re on vacation,” Ms. Casey said. “Make sure everyone builds in an automatic backup.”

And managers should keep notes: The Fourth next falls on a Wednesday in 2018.