OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

"Summertime and the living is easy", DuBose Hayward wrote decades

ago as lyrics to a tune composed by George Gershwin. And that was before

summer hours.



The three-day American holiday last weekend for Memorial Day marked the

start of the Madison Avenue tradition known as summer hours. From the

Memorial Day weekend through the Labor Day weekend - that's in early

September for those of you unfamiliar with our calendar - folks who toil

at ad agencies can leave work at noon or 1 pm on Fridays in exchange for

coming in earlier or shortening their lunches during the rest of the

week.



In some instances, summer hours mean Fridays off for everyone; at other

shops, employees are divided into groups and take turns working four-day

weeks. The Friday before Memorial Day and the Friday before Labor Day

are usually tossed in as days off for all.



No one seems sure how or when summer hours began, but some date it to

the late 60s or early 70s, when the employees at New York agencies

started making enough money to afford weekend getaways to the Hamptons,

Fire Island and other nearby resort communities.



Traffic being what it is, even back then, "nearby" is a relative concept

for New Yorkers. Close as they are, it still takes hours to make it out

to those places. Hence the idea of allowing people additional time off

during the weeks with the best weather.



The implied other side of the bargain is that such largesse will be

welcomed by employees who will therefore feel better about their work -

not to mention the folks for whom they work - and be more

productive.



Summer hours was a predominantly New York or East Coast phenomenon until

the mid-90s, when agencies in other large cities such as Chicago and Los

Angeles began offering shorter warm-weather work schedules. The idea

also has spread beyond agencies to media companies; Sports Illustrated

magazine, for instance, even has had three-day weeks.



Needless to say, summer hours come with a caveat: when a client calls,

the barbecue grill and beach will have to wait. And in more a

challenging economic climate, such as is currently bedevilling the

industry, marketers are much more likely to make decisions at the last

minute. That means Friday is often just another work day, along with

Saturday and Sunday.



That raises an interesting question: can summer hours survive a

slowdown?



Last week, for instance, more than 200 employees at five agencies found

out they're in line for summer hours all summer as they were laid off

right before the holiday weekend.



Well, ten years ago, during a recession, summer hours were still being

offered, so it would be hard to curtail the practice now when times

aren't so tough. Besides, during the 90s, as employees began working

longer hours, many agencies made unspoken deals with them: be available

when we need you and when there are holidays and we'll give you a chance

to "cluster" your days off.



For example, next month, when the next major American holiday arrives,

it's going to fall on a Wednesday. Don't be surprised if you have a hard

time reaching your American counterparts all that week, as they take

vacation days or compensatory time on either side of the holiday.



The name of the holiday? Er, I forget.



Oh, OK. It's Independence Day. You know, the one to celebrate winning

our freedom from, um, you.



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