In the city that never sleeps, many New Yorkers toiling to keep it awake won't be spending Christmas with their families, but at work with colleagues.
"About 70% of the restaurants close on Christmas, so the ones that are open take advantage of this opportunity to make money," said Kahlil Saliba, 42, co-owner of La Cerveceria in the East Village. Stratospheric rents amplify the pressure on small business owners to stay open longer and monetize every minute, continued Saliba, whose restaurant will be open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. To compensate, his workers will be paid time-and-a-half and sit down to a staff dinner after closing. Many restaurants are staffed by immigrants with families abroad, so a communal meal alleviates the sting of a holiday apart from loved ones, he said.
No one keeps track of how many New Yorkers work Dec. 25, but holiday "work creep" affects New Yorkers to a greater extent than people elsewhere.
The Big Apple revolves around the tourism and service industries, has oodles of media professionals and abounds in part-time workers -- all sectors in which workers are more likely to be obliged to punch the clock on Christmas. Nationally, the trend is also away from "sacred" days: The 10 paid holidays a year that was the norm for the majority of workers 20 years ago has shrunk to eight by this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bureau data also shows that while 77% of all private industry workers receive at least some paid holidays, the norm in the leisure and hospitality industry, and for all part-time workers in the private sector, is just 39%.
Working holidays -- including Christmas -- "is more and more expected by more and more employers," said Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor studies at Penn State Abington. For many reasons, the dividing line between work and "sacred time" for church and family has blurred. "That separation of different spheres of your life - your work life and your religious life or your home life -- that barrier has come down," Golden said. Its dismantling "takes a toll on the quality and quantity of family get-together time," he added.
While Christmas is often quieter than other days, "crime doesn't take a holiday," said Tim, an NYPD officer who preferred only his first name be used because he did not have permission to speak. One year, a burglar stole everything -- including the Christmas gifts -- families were forced to leave behind after their apartment building was condemned following a fire, he recalled. Patrol on Christmas Day inevitably involves responding to several "EDPs" (emotionally disturbed persons) who become suicidally depressed at being alone when others are not, and "drunk family fights," he said. While the rotation calls for him to work on Christmas, "I'm tired of it," he said.
But multi-cultural NYC is home to many people who don't celebrate Christmas and lots of folks prefer to schedule time off and travel when airplanes and trains aren't crammed to capacity. Still others find meaningful work preferable to spending time with quarrelsome family members who may wind up requiring a visit from cops like Tim.
Then there's the money. In addition to those who crave extra pay, many in gratuity-reliant industries say Dec. 25 can be the best day of the year for tips.
"A lot of people in my job only want to work at Christmas, but it doesn't work that way!" exclaimed Jesus Nivar, 25, the manager of a midtown parking garage. Lucrative Christmas shifts at garages on the Upper East Side and on Wall St. are especially coveted. One year, "a guy with a Rolls Royce gave me $3,000," recalled Nivar, who lives in the Crotona section of the Bronx. When Nivar worked on the Upper East Side, a restaurant owner sympathetic to holiday laborers provided a lavish gourmet feast. On Christmas, said Nivar, "the people are more friendly. They try to be nice and treat you good. If you have a good Christmas and make a lot of money, you're not going to be sad."
"In New York, it's working, working, working," for the 24/7, 365-day a year hotel industry, which is especially busy at Christmas, added Jose Velez, 47, an events and housekeeping worker at a midtown hotel. Velez, who commutes from North Bergen, N.J., will be flying to Columbia immediately afterwards for a belated celebration.
Joan Rowley, 62, a critical care registered nurse at Long Island College Hospital, feels her work is especially meaningful when performed on the holiday. "You do this work from your heart. I feel privileged to do this," said Rowley, who said she and other nurses try to make the intensive care ward and the day "special for everyone" with seasonal décor and extra kindness.
The strokes, brain injuries and various traumas that have put her patients in intensive care are also devastating for their family members, who also need comforting, explained Rowley, who lives in New Dorp, S.I. "It's heartbreaking because the grandmother may have always done things on Christmas," but now she lies unconscious, attached to a ventilator as her descendents realize they are facing a new family chapter. When Rowley's children were small and pleaded with their mom to stay home Christmas morning, she consoled them by saying, "mama gets to come home. These people don't get to come home for Christmas. We're lucky."