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Should parents get time off preference for holidays?

(MoneyWatch) Do you have to work on Christmas day? While we tend to think of it as a big vacation day for everyone, many, many people are still punching the clock. Hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations, airlines, restaurants, movie theaters and call centers all have people working while the rest of us are opening presents.

But, even at these busy places, not everyone needs to show up on any particular holiday. So, who gets to have the day off?

A doctor and mother of two argued on her blog, A Cartoon Guide to Becoming a Doctor, that parents should get first pick. Childcare on major holidays can be difficult to find, and therefore, moms and dads should be given priority over the childless or empty nesters.

Some parents out there are nodding their heads. However, granting this privilege to only those who manage to reproduce is a bad idea. While childcare is difficult to find, it's not like Christmas sneaks up on you. It happens on the same day, every year. You can tell it's coming by the increase in toy commercials, decorated trees and fat men in red suits. Parents have 364 days to find childcare for Christmas.

And while an employee may not have kids or may not celebrate Christmas, it may be the only day the rest of the family or old friends are available. People with teenagers, who don't require child care, are still bound by the school calendar and can only take that trip to Grandmas over Christmas break.

How can employers make the process fair for everyone? Here are some ideas to help dole out the holidays vacations.

Holiday pay. There is no law requiring overtime pay on a holiday. But, if you offer extra pay on a a high demand holiday (Christmas isn't the only one -- Thanksgiving, Yom Kippur, and even the 4th of July can be highly coveted) some people will prefer extra money to time off. Publicize the holiday pay bonus (even exempt employees can be given extra money) and let people sign up.

Plan in advance. The schedule shouldn't be put up the week before a holiday. For a major holiday, the schedule should be determined as far in advance as possible, months rather than days. This gives everyone the ability to arrange babysitting, travel, or what have you.

Alternate holidays. If you got Christmas off last year, you're working it this year. Or, if you worked Thanksgiving, you're in the clear for Christmas.

Make taking vacation on a holiday "expensive." Popular holidays should cost 2 days worth of PTO. Would you rather take Dec. 28th and 29th off or just get the 25th? People have different preferences, take advantage of that.

Don't make assumptions. Just because Karen in a single mom doesn't mean she needs (or wants) Christmas off. It may be the year her ex-husband has the kids. And, just because Stephen is Jewish it doesn't mean he wants to work. It may be the only day his family can get together as well.

Allow people to work it out themselves. The boss makes the schedule, but don't fret if people change things around. Let them bargain and negotiate who gets the coveted days off.

Don't rely on seniority only. While it makes some sense to say that the new guy has to work the holiday, nothing builds resentment faster than basing decisions purely on length of service. You build a better team when everyone gets an opportunity for some time off.

Increase telecommuting and on-call work. If your employees trouble shoot computer problems, do they need to be in their cubes or can they take calls from home, rotating through everyone? Instead of scheduling everyone, schedule only the bare minimum and call in as needed. More people may be able to stay home.

There isn't one special group that deserves important days off any more than anyone else. There's no legal obligation to give preference to employees with children. (There may be a legal obligation to allow someone to take a holy day off for religious reasons, as long as it doesn't cause the company hardship. Coworkers complaining about having to work while the religious person gets the day off may not be evidence of company hardship. Proceed with caution.)

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