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A CHEERLESS TREND IN XMAS BONUSES

THERE WILL BE Christmas parties as usual this year in offices and restaurants throughout Western New York, but the holiday cash bonuses once given out by some companies have largely gone the way of the yule log.

Nationwide, companies are slashing bonuses and cutting back on holiday festivities.

That's true at toy maker Fisher-Price of East Aurora, which is being set free to go it alone by its corporate parent, the Quaker Oats Corp. For the first time since the 1930s, a profit-sharing bonus given out during the holiday season has been eliminated because red ink is not a cheery Christmas color.

At one-time, older employees recall, bonuses were as high as several thousand dollars. The practice is said to have evolved from the mid-1930s, when Herman Fisher, one of the founders, gave out silver coins to employees from bags brought to the East Aurora plant under police escort with sirens wailing.

This year, the company will give employees turkeys, as it has done in past years.

In contrast, at Moog Inc., an annual year-end bonus will be given this year for the first time in two years. A company official declined to disclose the amounts of the bonuses but he described it "a relatively small" compared to several years ago.

Moog also intends to resurrect its holiday party after calling if off the last two Christmases because of finances. However, because the company was unable to book a facility to hold it on late notice, the party will be held next month when it will be called a winter party.

In contrast to Moog's holiday plans, a random survey taken of companies and firms in the Buffalo area discloses that most have not given Christmas bonuses for many years and a company-financed party open to the entire staff is not as common as it is in Manhattan.

"I used to live in New York City and I can tell you why that is," said Samuel L. Gifford, vice president of corporate communications for Delaware North Cos. "In New York City people don't drive after the party."

Gifford and executives at several other area companies said that firms are afraid of being held liable if an auto accident or other mishap should occur as a result of drinking at a company-sponsored party.

Department heads at Delaware North do hand out Christmas bonuses to clerical staff, but they amount to less than $100, according to Gifford. The company has never sponsored a Christmas party and doesn't intend to have one this year.

Large area employers that are holding companywide holiday parties this year, as in the past, include Arcata Graphics -- Buffalo.

Buffalo Forge instituted a formal Christmas party last year at which safety and employee-of-the-month awards were given. It will repeat the party this year.

Some institutions, such as Marine Midland Bank, subsidize department parties of from 10 to 500 people.

At M&T Bank, there is an annual party for bank officers and their spouses in the headquarters lobby and an annual party for the children of all employees is held at a location like Shea's Buffalo.

It is the holiday amenities -- foods and other nominal gifts -- that remain at many companies, according to a recent survey by the Bureau of National Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based publisher of business and labor information.

The survey of 504 companies found that 42 percent of them offered employees small cash bonuses -- usually around $125 -- or gifts, including turkeys, hams, candy dishes, calendars, jackets and, in one case, family photo portraits.

Another national survey, by the weekly newsletter Research Recommendations, published by the National Institute of Business Management, said 52 percent of companies will award year-end bonuses averaging $400, compared with last year, when 66 percent awarded about the same amount.

It also found that fewer companies will be tossing holiday galas for their employees, 72 percent this year, compared with 86 percent last year.

The newsletter also found that fewer turkeys, tote bags and holiday food baskets will be doled out. It said 42 percent plan to give gifts to their employees, down from 53 percent in 1989.

The survey also showed a trend away from serving hard drinks at company-sponsored parties. This year, 51 percent say beer, wine and liquor will be served, down from 63 percent last year.

On the bright side, 65 percent of the firms said they would give their employees more time off during the holidays. Since Christmas and New Year's Day are on Tuesdays, many employers will observe Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve as full or half-day holidays.

Some local companies are giving non-cash bonuses this year, including Pillsbury, where employees will get turkeys and hams paid for by proceeds from vending machines installed at various plant locations.

Employees at Rich Products get boxes of company products ranging from pastries to puddings.

Some area law firms give out holiday or year-end bonuses, at least to their clerical and para-legal staffs.

At Jaeckle Fleischmann and Mugel and Phillips Lytle Hitchcock Blaine & Huber, the bonuses will be similar to past years, based entirely on seniority at the firm.

At the Buffalo law firm of Flaherty Cohen Grande Randazzo and Doren, which specializes in representing companies on issues involving labor law, bonuses will be up by about 25 percent this year.

A partner said the bonuses amount to as much as a week's normal pay and are based largely on how much the firm made during the year. For its employees, those are tidings of comfort and joy.

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