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Working on the holidays: When some are having fun, others are tending patients, driving trucks

Alicia Feinen spent Thanksgiving at work. She worked so many hours, as a matter of fact, that she didn’t have time to squeeze in dinner with her family.

Such is life as a nurse.

“I’m kind of used to it,” said Feinen, 46, who works at Brooks Memorial Hospital in Dunkirk.

But nurses aren’t the only ones working shifts on major holidays. So are some retail employees. And tow truck drivers. And restaurant workers.

Maybe even you.

For a long time, the expression “working on the holiday” was considered an oxymoron. It never was, of course; it was understood that some occupations meant being ready to work at all hours and on all days, as anyone raised in a family with a police officer or a firefighter already knows.

But economic and cultural shifts mean that fewer and fewer people are immune to the phone call or email from the boss asking – or maybe pleading: “Can you work on the holiday?”

According to Allstate/National Journal’s annual Heartland Monitor poll, as reported last month in USA Today, a quarter of Americans will be required to work on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day this year. The same survey found that 45 percent said there’s at least a chance they will work one of those holidays.

The fact of this time of year, for many people in Western New York, is that work shifts will land on days that many of us spend basting turkeys, sipping eggnog or opening gifts. You’ll hear a lot of people complain about it. But some people know it comes with the territory.

“I knew I would be working holidays and weekends when I went into nursing,” said Feinen, who works in an intensive care unit at the hospital. “After 25 years, you know, I’m fine with it.”

Lots of people across the region know what holiday work shifts are like. One local driver of a tow truck, Dale E. Galuszka, said that holiday work is “usually not too bad.”

Galuszka, a driver and mechanic with Empire Towing and Recovery who just did a Thanksgiving shift at the West Seneca company, said that he even tries to work on holidays so others don’t have to.

“I try to work, usually, Thanksgiving and Christmas, ’cause I’m the youngest here,” said Galuszka, 24. “I don’t have kids.”

“A lot of the other workers here do have kids,” Galuszka said. “I’d rather see them home with their kids than me.”

Feinen, like some others who work on holidays, has learned ways to get through – and around – her holiday shifts. This Thanksgiving, because Feinen was working, she was planning to gather with her family on a different day.

“We have a big family,” said Feinen, who grew up in South Dayton on a dairy farm run by her family, the Stearns.

That is one technique that holiday workers can use: shifting their holiday events to days, or parts of the day, when they are not working. Then there is another approach, which is swapping work on some holidays for others that the employee wants to have off more.

Forbes Magazine has compiled other benefits to working when everyone else is sleeping late or partying:

• Extra pay. Many occupations give employees additional money to work on holidays.

• Extra vacation days. If you work on the holiday, many employers allow workers to bank that day and take it another time.

• Being seen as a team player, which could have long-range benefits.

Although some people don’t have a choice about working, some at least are given the chance to say which one they would prefer to have off, as long as they work another one. Robert Evans, also at Empire Towing, said that’s how it’s done at his place.

“Usually everybody picks the same holidays every year,” said Evans, lead tow truck driver at the company.

For drivers like Galuszka, that ends up working out fine. He said he prefers to have holidays off at other times during the year, anyway.

“I enjoy having the summer holidays off,” Galuszka said. “Fourth of July.”

Some restaurant staffers also know very well what it’s like to work on holidays. At Eastern Pearl, a restaurant on Maple Road in Amherst that serves Chinese food, general manager Ryan Stevens said that the restaurant is open on Christmas and other major holidays, with the exception of Thanksgiving.

“It’s – honestly, it’s just part of the job,” said Stevens, 32, about working on holidays.

Evans, the lead tow truck driver, who has a career of more than 20 years, said that there can be upsides to working on holidays.

“A lot of people are very cheerful on holidays, like Christmas,” he said.

Feinen, the nurse at the hospital in Dunkirk, said that the nurses at Brooks switch around the role of working on major holidays. That means if you work one holiday, you might not have to work the next.

“We alternate,” said Feinen, who attended Jamestown Community College. “So the major holidays, it starts with New Year’s – if you’re on New Year’s, then you’re off Easter, then you work Memorial Day.”

Feinen said that since she and her husband became parents of a daughter, who is now 9, it has been more of a priority for her to have Christmas off.

“I like to try to be off for Christmas,” said Feinen.

Feinen said that she loves working with patients in her job. And that even includes working on holidays, when she has to. Before Thanksgiving, she said she was thinking about what dessert she could take into work to share with others on staff. After the holiday, Feinen said that she followed through on that plan – by taking a “gingerbread pumpkin trifle.”

Evans, 40, said that he tries to make his holiday work pleasant for those he deals with. He said he’ll try to boost their spirits.

“I always tell them … ‘It could always be worse,’ ” Evans said.