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Employers Devise Varied Strategies to Cope With Rallies

May 2, 2006
Related Topics: Latest News
Unlike most May Day observances in the United States, May 1, 2006, did not go unnoticed by employers. The anticipated impact of a Day Without Immigrants caused much anxiety for companies that have come to rely heavily on foreign-born laborers. From Chicago to Houston and Miami to Washington, D.C., employers devised strategies to tackle the issue.

Employers in Los Angeles were hit with a double whammy as two of the country’s largest demonstrations took place in the city.

One of the rallies took place in downtown Los Angeles on Monday morning, where an estimated 250,000 turned out, while the other was held in the afternoon, drawing an estimated 400,000 and effectively shutting down the Mid-Wilshire area, a five-mile stretch that many consider the business backbone of Los Angeles. Nationwide, more than a million people attended rallies.

Given the wide spectrum of employers affected—entertainment companies, financial services providers and retailers of all shapes and sizes—the events unfolding along Wilshire Boulevard painted a picture of how employers across the country coped with the rallies.

In preparation for Monday's immigration rallies, many companies tried to work with employees to allow them to attend the events while still maintaining their operations, said John Challenger, CEO of consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. One strategy, Challenger said, was to arrange for workers to take the day off as a vacation day.

"They're trying to find compromise solutions," Challenger said.

Whole Foods Market on Fairfax Avenue gave employees the flexibility to take the day off to participate in the demonstrations. Nine workers out of 50 exercised their choice to be absent, says Carlos Hernandez, team leader at the store. At a sister store in Glendale, California, however, absenteeism was much higher—20 employees reportedly did not show up for work. But Hernandez and his colleagues from other stores were not negatively affected because they were able to prepare and pool resources to prevent being short-staffed.

A local McDonald’s started preparing for the May Day demonstrations several weeks ago. Employees received surveys asking whether they intended to be absent from work, restaurant manager Serafin Rodriguez said. The heads-up allowed him to juggle people’s schedules and avert being understaffed, he said.

About 10 out of 30 workers took the day off to participate in the events, Rodriguez estimates. Those who showed up to work for shorter shifts participated in the raffling of food before going to the marches.

"If they feel so strongly about the marches," Rodriguez says, "then they should not be at work because they may be distracted."

But the potential problems associated with a distracted workforce were not a concern for all employers. At the Grove, an upscale retail and entertainment venue just a few miles from the epicenter of the afternoon march, it was business as usual. The bathrooms were being cleaned, the parking lot was fully staffed, and sweepers were assiduously keeping the place pristine.

But, several of the mall’s maintenance staffers who had attended work said they would rather have been with the demonstrators.

"I am at work because I have to be, but my heart is with the marchers," said a parking attendant who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from his supervisor.

John Challenger witnessed the immigration rally in downtown Chicago. It was a sea of people, he said. The five-year period between 2000 and 2005 saw the largest wave of immigration in U.S. history, with 7.9 million legal and undocumented immigrants settling here, Challenger said.

"That population is beginning to make itself felt," he said.

--Gina Ruiz with Ed Frauenheim

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