A vacation you can’t refuse

By Jessica Shambora

It’s Christmas week, always a quiet time at workplaces across the country. But this holiday is anything but typical. The quiet will stretch way beyond Christmas at many offices and factories this year.

No surprise, the Big Three automakers are temporarily shutting North American plants, in numbers correlating to their varying degrees of peril. Chrysler closed all 30 of its plants for a month. General Motors followed suit with 20. Ford will shut down 10 plants for an extra week in January. Overseas production is also winding down, dashing hopes for relief  from emerging markets.

While we’re used to Europeans taking lots of time off, this holiday is exceptional. Among those set for an extended close: a Nokia plant in Hungary, Michelin factories in Ireland, Fiat plants in Italy, and a unit of stainless steel-producer, ThyssenKrupp, in Germany.

Workplaces across North America, meanwhile, such as a Whirlpool plant in Middle Amana, Iowa, will close for longer than usual. Even state governments, from California to South Carolina, are proposing unpaid work furloughs as they struggle to cut budgets.

And in Silicon Valley — where I’m writing from this week — companies are jumping to cut costs, having learned a thing or two from being at the forefront of the last downturn. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Cisco Systems , Apple , Adobe, Applied Materials and Advanced Micro Devices all plan to extend regular holiday breaks.

As the New York Times echoes in “More Companies Cut Labor Costs Without Layoffs” on the front page today, companies are turning out the lights to cut operating costs and save on compensation. Some pay reduced wages or none at all during their shutdowns. At Dell , for example, Christmas is part of a paid week off as usual. But management is urging employees to take five unpaid days off anytime during the fourth quarter. That’s one way to improve earnings!

And at H-P and Cisco, employees are being told which days to take off around the holidays; those extra days count against paid vacation. That’s like a lump of coal, but you don’t see too many employees protesting loudly, do you? Maybe because a forced short vacation is, after all, better than a permanent one.

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