South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

South St. Louis County News

St. Louis Call Newspapers

Sunset Hills aldermen end longtime employee practice

Tradition a morale-booster, department heads contend

Traditionally, Sunset Hills mayors have allowed city employees to leave City Hall several hours early on regular business days before holidays, but in the future, employees will work during all the city’s posted hours of business.

At the Board of Aldermen’s Aug. 12 meeting, aldermen adopted a resolution recommending the change 7-1, with Ward 2 Alderman Tom Musich opposed.

City employees officially receive 10 paid holidays a year, but in a tradition that traces back more than two decades, they have always left earlier than the 5 p.m. close of city business on days preceding holidays, at the mayor’s discretion. Although the practice was an entrenched tradition, however, the revised hours were never officially posted on the city’s website or at City Hall.

“If it’s posted on our website that the city offices are open, someone should be there to accommodate the people who are coming in,” Ward 4 Alderman Patricia Fribis said.

She learned about the tradition last year when she called City Hall the afternoon of Dec. 23 — scheduled to be a regular day of city business — to wish employees a merry Christmas, but no one picked up the phone. Last year, aldermen added Christmas Eve as a paid holiday.

Although Musich told the Call he believed the extra time off was only taken around major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, Ward 1 Alderman Richard Gau noted that this year, employees took off at 2 p.m. the Friday before Memorial Day, which they have off as a paid holiday.

“Monday’s the holiday,” he said. “Not Friday.”

Mayor Mark Furrer asked former Mayor Bill Nolan, who was in the audience, to address the tradition “since obviously you were the person that let the people off the day before Christmas Eve.”

“But not the day before Memorial Day, Mr. Mayor,” Nolan said. “I wasn’t in office the day before Memorial Day — so that’s yours.”

Write-in candidate Furrer defeated Nolan in the April election this year and took office April 22.

The tradition of letting employees off early began before Nolan was mayor, he said, and the mayor who preceded him, Mike Svoboda, was also in the audience and agreed that the practice had also long preceded Svoboda’s 2008-2010 tenure as mayor.

“I’d get a call on the day before a holiday, sometime around 1 or 1:30, saying, ‘Are we going to get off early today? Can we go home at 2?'” Nolan recalled. “And I would say, ‘Go home at 3,’ and that’s the end of it. And I followed a policy that preceded me and the prior mayor … and preceded him and preceded him.”

When Furrer asked if the employees of Nolan’s business, Nolan Office Interiors, are allowed to leave early before holidays, Nolan replied, “Always.”

The unwritten policy continually places the mayor in the awkward position of deciding whether and when to let employees leave early, Ward 3 Alderman Jan Hoffmann noted.

“What mayor’s going to say no?” she asked. “I think that’s very unfair to put that on the mayor year after year after year.”

Although all four of the city’s department heads said the shorter days were beneficial for employees, the city’s Personnel Committee, chaired by Gau, felt strongly that employees should be at City Hall during all the city’s posted business hours, he reported to the board.

“There’s a personnel manual that says, ‘These are our hours of operation,’ and we either abide by them or we don’t,” Gau said. “What if you decide to give them three hours off, or a half day off or a day off? There is a published holiday schedule. It’s pretty simple … We conduct business from 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m).”

If several more hours off a year close to holidays can boost employees’ morale and camaraderie, Musich told the Call, he supports the idea and believes it will pay off for the city and its taxpayers in the long run with happier employees.

“My perspective is that the employees at Sunset are a family, and I think they go above and beyond what is required of them,” he said. “If a small gesture of goodwill at the time of the holidays is all it takes, I think it is in our best interest to thank the employees for their time, their devotion and the respect that they give us.”

Furrer asked department heads what they thought of the resolution, and all of them — City Clerk Laura Rider, City Engineer and Public Works Director Bryson Baker, Parks Director Gerald Brown and Police Chief William LaGrand — said employees appreciate the chance to take off from work early and would feel like they lost a benefit if the perk was taken away.

Leaving work a few hours early is a morale-booster for employees, Rider said, and she and Baker noted that they have not had any complaints from anyone who was trying to conduct city business before a holiday and showed up to find an empty City Hall.

“I’ve been here 20 years, and it’s something that (the mayors have) all done,” Rider said. “I think it’s used to boost morale and create goodwill amongst the employees, a feel-good thing. I think it’s a way you can do this without a cost to the city and to my knowledge, I don’t know of anyone that it has created a situation for that was trying to conduct business.”

When Furrer solicited comments from the audience, one resident was against and one in favor.

“I know mentally people already take off because it’s a holiday, but I’m still paying them,” said one man.

However, another audience member disagreed, saying, “I take my cue from Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ — I’m a firm believer in traditions.”

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