When it comes to paid holidays, the first couple months of the year can be a barren time for many workers -- unless you have a government job. For the nation's 2 million federal employees, Monday's holiday honoring George Washington's Birthday is just one of four paid days off throughout the year that many in the nation's private workforce don't enjoy.A recent survey shows just how few employers observe some federal holidays. While 95% of businesses close their doors on Memorial Day, only about a third give employees a paid break on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, or Monday's holiday, which is frequently, if erroneously, called Presidents' Day.

The poll, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, shows that even fewer employers honor the autumn holidays of Columbus Day and Veterans Day, with only 13% and 16%, respectively, closing for business on those days.

But do private-sector employees really care that they don't get those holidays off? When asked to rank their top choice of company-sponsored holidays among several days typically included among "floater" days, nearly half of office workers surveyed said they preferred to take off their own birthdays, according to a 2007 poll conducted by Blumberg Capital Partners. At 46%, that choice easily outdistanced others such as Veterans Day (14%), "Presidents' Day" (10%) or Martin Luther King Jr. day (8%).

"Creating More Flexibility"

So-called floating holidays, along with flexible work arrangements that allow workers to choose to start work earlier or later in the day, were among the first steps companies took in allowing employees to attend to personal issues or honor less widely observed holidays, such as non-Christian religious holidays, says Rose Stanley, work-life practice leader at WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based human-resources organization. The number of such days granted each year depends on the employer, but two is fairly typical.

"It's a way of creating more flexibility around something an employee can't control, unless you work for the federal government," Stanley says. That's especially true for parents of younger children. Many schools and even day-care centers close on federal holidays, giving parents few choices other than taking time off to care for children. Stanley herself is using one of her floating holidays to be with her elementary-school-age son Monday.

Organizations are increasingly offering floating holidays as a benefit to help employees achieve a better work-life balance, which in turn contributes to job satisfaction, increased productivity, loyalty and worker retention. "[Employers] see a value in being able to offer something that can come back to them as a return on investment in that employee," Stanley says. Further, given the current employment market, in which few companies are able to provide merit raises or bonuses, floating holidays can be a form of compensation. "Time is the new currency," she says.

If all this has you yearning for more time off, or at least wanting a government job, you may at least take comfort in knowing that many in the nation's workforce get an extra holiday this year thanks to a quirk in the calendar. With New Year's Day 2011 falling on a Saturday, most businesses will likely follow the federal government's lead and offer Friday, Dec. 31 as the holiday.

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