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Spain workers lose bridge holidays in debt crisis austerity move

Considering how many of his friends are unemployed, electrician Javier Ramirez felt like he'd hit the jackpot when his company scored a contract for government buildings here in Spain's sprawling capital. He gets paid by the hour, and rewiring 250-year-old marble halls is a formidable job that should feed his family for years.

The problem is, Ramirez worked only about half of last month, and the time off wasn't his choice. It was courtesy of Spain's slate of religious and municipal holidays — a generous 14 per year, 40% more than in the United States — and a beloved little tradition called the puente, or "bridge."

Puentes result when a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday and, to make a long weekend, workers take off the Monday or Friday in between. Many employers tacitly acquiesce to an extra vacation day, and some close their offices altogether. Along with the siesta and three-hour lunches, puentes are one of the delicious little time-wasters that have the Spaniards thumbing their noses at more rigid schedules in northern Europe, efficiency be damned.

But Europe's debt crisis has decimated Spain's workforce, and unemployment here tops 23%. Now, with northern leaders increasingly scolding the "layabouts" of the south, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the puentes are something Spain can no longer afford.

So, in a nearly $20-billion package of spending cuts and tax increases passed by the parliament this month, Rajoy took aim at the puentes. Starting this year, most holidays that fall midweek will be moved to Monday, limiting workers to a three-day weekend.

A few holidays, such as Christmas and New Year's Day, will still be celebrated on fixed dates, but other fiestas that many Spaniards hold dear — the Day of the Blessed Virgin's Immaculate Conception, or the slightly more obscure Festival of St. Mary of the Head, to name just two — will be celebrated on Mondays, in much the same way Americans celebrate Labor Day or Memorial Day.

It's too early to put a dollar figure on the potential savings, or to know how many Spaniards might take a vacation day in defiance or out of habit, and create a four-day weekend where they always had one.

But the move could significantly boost productivity and outweigh potential losses for hotels, which benefit from domestic tourism with longer weekends, said Gayle Allard, an economist at Madrid's IE Business School who previously worked in Spain's banking sector.

"We had problems being on the same schedule with other financial centers. Spaniards were working their traditional day, with the long lunch, and then they stay late at night," Allard said. "If they could kind of align working hours, drop the idea of the siesta and get rid of the puentes, it might actually be beneficial for Spaniards to work a more compact day and week, more similar to European hours."

Many Spaniards lucky enough to have jobs these days are underemployed — law graduates working in restaurants, for example. And with a hiring freeze on public jobs, more and more Spaniards are working for hourly pay, with no benefits or job security. They're the ones who lose money on the puentes, among them electrician Ramirez, who doesn't get paid for time off.

"I don't really want that relaxing day; I prefer to work," the 36-year-old said as he lined up to go through security early one recent morning to work at the Ministry of Public Works building in downtown Madrid. "I want to take my vacation when I want. So the puente, for me, it's an annoying thing."

But for salaried workers, it's a different story.

"The change doesn't really affect us office workers, because if we want a long weekend, we've still got plenty of vacation days," said Juan Carlos Yebra, a 38-year-old Web designer in Madrid.

"But the puente is definitely a tradition here. Outside Spain, I have a feeling we might be famous for this," he said, laughing. "My co-worker, for example, is from England, and she's constantly saying, 'You're always on vacation!'"

France also has its bridge weekends, les ponts, but there's been no talk of eliminating the tradition there. Although the French are known for perks such as their 35-hour workweek, criticism of such practices seems to stick more to southern Europeans. Animosity veiled as humor ricochets across the continent. In March 2010, the German tabloid Bild ran an open letter to then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou saying Greeks need to learn to "get up early and work all day" like Germans.

Last spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dragged Spain into the mix, suggesting that Spaniards needed to work harder and longer, with fewer days off, if they were going to have their debts paid off by northern Europeans who save more, spend less and retire at 67.

"It is also important that people in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal are not able to retire earlier than in Germany, that everyone exerts themselves more or less equally," Merkel told a gathering of her conservative Christian Democratic Union in May.

"We can't have a common currency where some get lots of vacation time and others very little," Merkel said. "That won't work in the long term."

Since then, Spain has increased its retirement age from 65 to 67, the same as in Germany. Compared with Spain's 14 public holidays, Germany has eight to 11 public holidays, depending on the federal state. France has 11 to 13, again depending on the region. (The U.S. has 10 federal holidays.)

Spain's dismal jobless rate is also pushing more Spaniards to move abroad to find work. With such mobility, plus globalization, the days are gone when European nations could keep their work schedules distinct.

"I work for an English company here in Spain, and all the Brits are accustomed to eating lunch at noon at their desks. I still go out for coffee and a cigarette at noon, and eat my lunch at 3 o'clock," said Yebra, the Web designer. "For my bosses, that might be foreign, but I'm stubborn.

"Our hours or days off might change, but I'm going to cling to those things as long as I can," he said, relishing one last drag of his cigarette, in the Spanish sunshine, before heading back into work.

Frayer is a special correspondent.

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