Should only blacks take the MLK holiday?

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The answer, of course, is no. But that’s what seems to happen at some companies.

Here at Time Inc., we take our Martin Luther King Jr. Day seriously. Even though we’re a weekly magazine that closes on Wednesdays, we at TIME Magazine got the day off. The better to respect the great man who was TIME’s Man of the Year back in 1964 (and yes, it was Man back then, not Person).

mlkmanofyearcover.jpg
The only man of the year with a national holiday. / TIME

It’s been so long since I’ve worked at a smaller company that I’d completely forgotten that MLK Day is not mandatory. In fact, only a third of companies observed the day last year, according to Business First of Louisville:

About 33 percent of employers will give their workers a paid holiday on Jan. 15 in observance of Martin Luther King Day, according to a survey by The Bureau of National Affairs Inc., a publisher of news and information for business and government workers.

And that’s an improvement. Back when MLK Day became a national holiday, in 1986, only 11% of employers offered workers a paid day off.

Here’s the loophole. It’s a national holiday, which is to say it’s not required. Big companies like the one I work for can afford to observe it (and mine, staffed as it is by loudmouthed journalists, probably wants to avoid the headache of the media rumpus we’d cause if it were not). But smaller, privately held employers feel the eight hours of missed work by employees would cause irreparable financial damage.

Or so I thought. Again from Business First:

Large organizations — those with 1,000 or more employees — are only slightly more likely to give workers paid time off on Martin Luther King Day than smaller employers (33 percent versus 32 percent, respectively).

I began looking into this because I heard today about a weird business practice: of employers allowing only their African-American employees the day off, paid, and requiring everyone else to work. That’s the case at one small, private company in the home furnishings industry where someone I know works. She’d love to observe the holiday, too, but with only one week’s vacation per year she feels she needs to save up her days.

This forum on Answers.Yahoo.com says that workers can in fact insist on taking the day off, but only as a vacation or sick day. That’s probably the case at this company above. And many companies, particularly in the manufacturing industry, allot workers a certain number of floating holidays that they can expend on this day.

Which brings me to another issue. Many schools observe the holiday. My little one’s preschool does. So whether I had the day off or not, I had no childcare for my three-year-old. I’m certain there are other parents at her school who had to scramble madly for coverage.

I find it all pretty lopsided. Here we give this man lip service, extolling his historic deeds in campaign stump speeches and on radio marathons. Our schools and federal institutions honor him by shutting down for a day. Yet our private industry buzzes along as if it’s just another Monday.

It would be one thing if the U.S. were like Japan, with the whole country closing up shop seemingly every other week with a day to be nice to old people or a day to polish ancestral tombstones or some such. But here in America, there are only 10 national holidays. Ten! And the thing that irks me is that we observe most of the others (which are, in calendar order, New Year’s Day; Washington’s birthday; Memorial Day; Independence Day; Labor Day; Columbus Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving Day and Christmas).

That some employers think only blacks ought to take the MLK holiday is patently ridiculous. Tell me what the deal is at your place of work.

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