Many Cities, Firms Ignore King Holiday : Observance: Governments cite cost of an added day off for employees. Some companies give a personal day in honor of the civil rights leader that workers can take off when they wish.


More than a decade after Congress declared a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., most people in Orange County still don't get the day off.

Schools and courts are closed, as mandated by state law. Local branches of most banks are also shuttered, largely because their state and national offices will not be operating.

But trash will be picked up. Buses will run on regular schedules. The major employers in Orange County's private sector--like about one-fifth of Fortune 500 companies nationwide--don't count today among their paid holidays, even though some close for Presidents' Day, Veterans' Day and a full week between Christmas and New Year's.

Two-thirds of city governments in Orange County will be open for business as usual.

"It boils down to whether we decide to take the extra financial burden or exchange with other paid holidays," said Bill A. Huston, city manager in Tustin, which has the largest percentage of black residents in the county but is one of the 20 cities that does not give its work force the day off.

"I hate to sound harsh or callous . . . but the city's responsibility to the public is to watch nickels and dimes," Huston said.

In Yorba Linda, birthplace of Richard Nixon, city employees work on Martin Luther King Day, but stay home with pay on the former President's birthday.

City leaders and business owners said they are not trying to slight King but offering his birthday as a holiday would be an economic hardship. Traditionally, they noted, new holidays are added only at the insistence of labor unions and few employees have made this one a priority in contract negotiations.

Many employers said they believe that an employee who wants the holiday off can take a "personal" day allowed by the company.

Local African American activists are hardly surprised by the lack of recognition. Orange County is home to 2.4 million people, but only 41,632 blacks, according to the 1990 Census.

In Orange County, not one of the 161 elected city council members is African American. It is a place where Ellen Shaw, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, says simply: "We don't have a community."

"Orange County is Orange County," sighed Aaron Lovejoy, a black business owner who has always given his employees a paid holiday on King's birthday and is disappointed that so many cities and corporations do not do the same.

"Because of the small African American population, there probably has not been that great an incentive" to give workers the day off, said Lovejoy, who runs Ultra-Tech Resources in Santa Ana.

"As an African American myself, there's a great deal of respect for Martin Luther King," he said. "Allowing our employees the day off is one way we demonstrate that respect."

At least half a dozen local businesses headed by African Americans--including Thomas Bros. Maps, which has 170 employees, an Orange physician's office, a commercial leasing company and a mortgage bank--will be closed today.

"Absolutely," First Republic Mortgage Corp. President Lionel Punchard said when asked whether his Santa Ana company will be closed. "I know that a lot of people over the years have not taken this day real seriously, but . . . it's personally important to me. It's a very, very important day for me."

All county offices will be closed today, along with 11 city governments: Anaheim, Brea, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Lake Forest, Los Alamitos, Placentia, San Clemente, Santa Ana and Seal Beach. Mission Viejo joins the list for the first time this year.

Spurred by Julius Delpino and Randall Jordan, Mission Viejo residents who are among a handful of vocal black activists in the county, the City Council voted unanimously last month to give its employees a paid holiday in honor of King.

"We (were) making a statement, whether we (wanted) to or not, by not declaring it a holiday," said Robert D. Breton, the council member who led the drive for the holiday. "By declaring it a holiday, we are making a statement . . . that we need to combat prejudice and battle bigotry right here in our hometown (and that) Dr. Martin Luther King's message is a universal message which transcends all cultures."

After a 15-year fight, Congress in 1983 declared King's birthday a national holiday--giving it status akin to Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day and Veterans' Day. President Reagan signed the bill into law, and the holiday has been celebrated on the third Monday in January since 1986.

In Irvine, where the city government has closed in honor of King's birthday for the past five years, "there was never a question about whether we should honor the holiday or not," said City Manager Paul O. Brady Jr.

In Anaheim, employees have long enjoyed a "flexible holiday" that allowed them to choose whether to take the day off. But in 1991, the city's unions suggested Anaheim join other large cities in shutting down for the holiday, and officials agreed.

Newport Beach remains open for business today, but employees receive a personal holiday, dedicated to King, that they can take any time during the year.

Officials in cities that don't honor the holiday say it's mostly a matter of money.

"Holidays are expensive" is how Michael Fenderson, deputy city manager in Garden Grove, puts it.

Rick Pickering, Costa Mesa's assistant city manager, said that adding a holiday to the current schedule--which includes both George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthday--would cost the city $60,000.

City officials have proposed combining the two presidential birthdays and adding King's birthday to the roster several times in recent years, but labor unions have rejected the idea.

"The city is not opposed to honoring Dr. King, but we have to consider the impact to the taxpayer," Pickering said. "We have to weigh out the pros and cons of being good stewards of the tax money."

Local corporations also weigh economic issues against employee priorities. Spokespersons for several of the county's largest employers said they prefer to keep the shop open and provide "floating holidays" for employees to use for the religious or cultural events that are most important to them.

With such a small African American population, corporate executives said, the issue of the King holiday rarely is raised.

"The basic philosophy is to empower the employee," said Mark Krouse, director of human resources at Fluor Daniel, a construction subsidiary of Irvine-based Fluor Corp. that employs 3,100 workers. Fluor Daniel has only six companywide holidays each year--Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Memorial Day--but each worker also receives several personal days he or she can take at any time.

PacifiCare Health Systems Inc., a Cypress-based health care company with 1,800 employees in Orange County, offers employees eight holidays, including Presidents' Day, the day after Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, plus five personal days.

"We have a Jewish population, we have a Buddhist population, we have your different ethnic groups and people have different things that are important to them," explained Wanda Lee, a senior vice president at PacifiCare.

"How is it you can allow them to recognize what's special for them and not have 25 holidays a year?" she asked. "The way to do it is to have personal days."

The Los Angeles Times, which employs 1,100 people in its Orange County edition, treats King's birthday as a regular work day, but gives employees an extra personal day in honor of the holiday. The day off can be taken any time during the year.

Though PacifiCare has no plans to close on the King holiday in the future, Lee said a newly formed diversity council at the company is looking at ways to honor King in the workplace. Last year, there was a Cinco de Mayo festival that celebrated Mexican culture; soon there may be a black history event during work hours on King day.

"Even if you don't close," Lee pointed out, "there are some things you can do to recognize it."

African American leaders agree, and have been focusing on planning commemorative events, rather than lobbying corporations or cities to close their offices.

Delpino, Jordan and Paul Beltis, a white Mission Viejo resident, will offer a string of films and panel discussions today at Shepherd Hills Church. One set will be in the afternoon, and another in the evening, for those who have to work.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission in Atlanta, the top priority is enlisting communities in public service events such as helping the homeless or the elderly, according to chief of staff Alan Minton.

"We don't want it to be just another day to sleep in," Minton said. 'If you put some substance behind it, then people will do something about it."

But Beltis and Shaw, who both will use personal days today because their companies do not provide them with days off, said that providing "floating holidays" instead of closing on King day probably means that only those who already believe the holiday is important will celebrate it.

If everyone had the day off, they noted, more people would probably become involved in community celebrations or individual reflections on King's philosophy and accomplishments.

"The current philosophy in the country is that Martin Luther King's birthday is still a second-class holiday, that it's not a real official holiday, even though it is," Beltis said.

"It's perceived as a 'black' holiday . . . it just shows how (city and business leaders are) missing his message," Beltis said. "In this day and age more than ever, boy do we need to understand the messages of Dr. King."

King Day No Holiday for Most Big O.C. Companies

Most major employers in Orange County don't close on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, although Congress declared it a national holiday in 1983. Here is a look at the holiday policies of some local corporations:

* AST Research, Irvine, 1,800 employees in Orange County. Holidays: New Year's, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, day after Thanksgiving, Christmas and two floating holidays

* Beckman Instruments Inc. Costa Mesa. 2,900 employees in the county. Holidays: Christmas Eve through New Year's, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, day after Thanksgiving

* Bergen Brunswig Corp. Orange. 600 employees in the county. Holidays: New Year's, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, day after Thanksgiving, Christmas and two floating holidays

* Fluor Corp. Irvine. 3,100 employees in the county. Holidays: New Year's, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and several personal days (depends on position)

* PacifiCare Health Systems Inc. Cypress. 1,800 employees in the county. Holidays: New Year's, Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day.

* Rockwell International Corp. Seal Beach. 6,700 employees in the county. Holidays: Christmas Eve through New Year's, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and day after Thanksgiving

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