Going to work today?
For many state employees, today may mean staying home, enjoying turkey leftovers in pajamas — and a full day’s pay.
The tradition of Black Friday as a public holiday for state workers was saved from extinction this year, and may be preserved for good.
In the past, New Jersey governors would make a point of signing ceremonial executive orders to give the state’s employees the day off, in a showy gesture that officials say was less about employment rights and more akin to the U.S. president pardoning a turkey.
The practice fell out of public favor, but in 2009 under then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine, the state was so cash-strapped that it offered furlough days to its employees, and begged them to take Black Friday as one of them.
Furloughs were unnecessary this year, but the day off became a reason for a new war between the state and its unions. Gov. Chris Christie sent out a memo in October telling state workers that they would have to report for duty this morning.
The Communications Workers of America took that fight to the state Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC, and earlier this month the governor was forced to back down.
State workers would be “irreparably harmed,” said PERC official Stuart Reichman, as he ruled in the union’s favor. He based his decision on Corzine’s 2009 memorandum that said union members could assign Black Friday as a holiday, in place of Lincoln’s birthday Feb. 12.
Hetty Rosenstein, Communications Workers of America state director, who previously called Christie’s memo “dirty pool,” described the commission’s ruling as “a wonderfully family-friendly decision.”
In practice, however, CWA members are not the only state employees whose work grinds to a halt on Black Friday.
All school employees have the day off, because the schools are closed.
Outside agencies sometimes make their own arrangements: The South Jersey Transportation Authority, for example, designates Black Friday a paid holiday for all, in return for employees working on Election Day.
“We try to remain within the governor’s standards,” said SJTA spokeswoman Sharon Gordon. “We’ve always done this a little differently.”
And the varied ways for state workers to take off leaves even unclassified employees — those who fall outside union contracts and civil service rules — choosing to use their own vacation time that day, because there’s so little state business.
“Nothing much happens that day,” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Tuesday, adding that he was still deciding whether he would take today off.
Lack of political excitement and legislative action means the office could run on minimum staffing, he said: “It’s kind of a skeleton crew.”
But Christie will show up for work today, Drewniak said.
The governor has run a consistent campaign to hold public worker unions accountable for their health and benefits costs, to accept caps on some salaries and, on this issue, not to demand flexibility on paid holidays that workers in private industry do not get.
New Jersey’s state workers get 13 paid holidays. That is more than workers in any other state. The proposal to swap Black Friday for Lincoln’s birthday as a paid day off, which Corzine ratified in 2009, is possible only because New Jersey is one of just five states to qualify Lincoln’s birthday as a state holiday.
Treasury spokesman Andrew Pratt said the requests to switch were never backed up by paperwork, so state payroll officials will not be notified as to how many workers chose to make the Thanksgiving-for-Lincoln’s birthday swap.
For private-industry workers who rely on state employees as customers, Black Friday promises nothing but boredom.
“We close that day,” said Julie Ebanyu, who works as a cashier in the Statehouse concession shop, selling candy and coffee to normally time-strapped workers.
“If we open and no one’s here, we lose out.”
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