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Celebrating King's legacy on or off the job

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever since it became a federal holiday in the 1980s, Martin Luther King Jr. Day has posed a quandary for businesses. While many would like to demonstrate their commitment to diversity and the legacy of the man most identified with the civil rights movement, they are faced with production quotas, competitors who stay open on the holiday, to be observed Monday, and a workforce that has already been given significant holidays the previous month.

This year, 28 percent of employers nationally will offer their workers a paid holiday on the day, down from its peak of 33 percent in 2007, according to a survey by business and government news provider BNA.

Manufacturers are less likely to give the day off — only 4 percent do — according to the survey. Non-business employers such as governments and non-profits are most likely to, with the survey suggesting 54 percent do. Non-manufacturing businesses come in at 22 percent.

Lexington's largest employers mirror the national trends.

Federal, state and local government offices, Fayette County Public Schools and the area's largest employer, the University of Kentucky, are closed.

But you need look no further than the U.S. Postal Service to see the impact of businesses on those that observe the holiday. Regular mail delivery is suspended, but the carrier does not close its business-oriented services: It continues to deliver express mail and has its bulk mail unit open, although it has a limited staff and pickup.

"Both of these units are geared toward business customers who still need these services on the non-widely observed holidays," said spokeswoman Susan Wright, citing Presidents Day, Columbus Day and Veterans Day as other examples.

Among the business customers it seeks to continue to serve on the day are companies such as Lexington's Lexmark International and Covington-based Ashland. The printer maker and specialty chemical company are both global companies that put together a core set of holidays tied to the traditions of each country in which they operate, spokesmen said.

Each tries to help employees celebrate, though, if they desire. Ashland, which has its Valvoline division in Lexington, offers employees a personal day to use at their discretion for non-observed holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day or any other day, said spokesman Jim Vitak.

Lexmark provides U.S. employees with as many as three work days that they are paid to volunteer to support the community through religious, non-profit, ethnic or other worthwhile causes, spokesman Jerry Grasso said. The company also provides sponsorship support for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity Breakfast, he said.

For those companies that interface with public customers every day, it's just another day of business.

Hospitals don't close, though spokesman Jimmy Stanton said UK closes its clinics. St. Joseph Health System observes the holiday, too, but it doesn't affect patient care. Likewise, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Lexington, the federal employees observe the holiday but about 500 of them, more than 30 percent of the staff, work to provide care and keep the facilities open, said Destie Stimes, director of public affairs.

To make sure the holiday's meaning is not forgotten, the VA puts together an annual program that includes a video presentation and an exhibit of King memorabilia, she said.

Production goes on

The least likely to close are manufacturers, according to the survey, and that is because of production demands.

The area's largest private employer, Toyota, keeps its Georgetown assembly plant, the company's largest in North America, open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"We have to work so many days a year to match the production schedule we get from Toyota Motor Sales," said spokesman Rick Hesterberg. "For us, that's what we're faced with."

The company offers 16 holidays to employees, several of which are extended time off in the summer around the Fourth of July and winter around Christmas. The plant shuts down completely during those times, allowing for machinery changes and such.

Like others, the company finds ways to celebrate diversity and King's message. Toyota provides sponsorship for the annual Unity Breakfast and also hosted a traveling King exhibit in recent years.

Will the celebration grow?

So at what point, if ever, does Martin Luther King Jr. Day elevate itself out of the group of holidays that are not widely observed?

Matt Sottong, director of surveys and research for survey conductor BNA, noted that paid observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day have grown a lot over the course of its short history.

In the holiday's inaugural year, 1986, only 14 percent of employers made it a paid holiday. That figure stayed in the teens until a spike in 1993, when 24 percent of employees did so. Paid observances topped 30 percent for the first time in 2003, according to the survey.

Sottong said he had been particularly intrigued to see this year's results given the election of Barack Obama, the country's first black president.

"I thought if there would be ... a spike in that observance, it would be after a historical election like that," he said. "But there wasn't."

And while the holiday has been increasing in observances, it might stay one of the lesser-observed holidays like Presidents Day or Veterans Day.

"Employers are just getting over having had employees take time off for the holidays," Sottong said of Christmas and New Year's Day. "At some point, employers sort of have to make a decision as to how many paid days they're going to give.

"This is just the newest holiday."

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