While most Treasure Valley workers will ease into a three-day weekend this Christmas Eve, hundreds of their neighbors will be setting alarm clocks or ironing tomorrow’s uniforms.
Banks and government buildings might be closed on Christmas Day, but hospitals never shut their doors. Many industries cannot go dark for a day — police, airlines and news organizations among them.
Kristi Slane, a registered nurse in the maternity unit of Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center hospital in Boise, usually volunteers to work on Christmas because she doesn’t have children at home.
“I like to be able to give the ladies I work with the opportunity to be home with their babies,” she said. “Because Christmas is usually about the little kids and the opening of the presents.”
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The unit’s Christmas shift is more festive than most, not only because of the two Christmas trees that decorate it, or the lunch provided by the hospital, but because parents are so overjoyed to have a special gift: a new family member.
“It’s a special time of the year, and I’m glad I can (share) that ... and hopefully make their day special,” she said.
I like working Christmas because it’s working with people who are away from their family and helping them get into good cheer. I like to sing carols, tell jokes, distract.
Jim McAvoy, registered nurse, St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Hospital (formerly Elks Rehab)
Another health care worker who signs up for Christmas duty is Shaun Tam, a ground-transport paramedic for Air St. Luke’s in Meridian.
Tam, 34, said many of his co-workers have young children at home. He has two, ages 5 and 8. But his family has developed a holiday tradition that works: They celebrate on Christmas Eve and open gifts at the crack of Christmas dawn. Then his wife and children head to Mountain Home to visit grandparents while Tam heads to work.
Tam, a nursing student at the College of Western Idaho, said the overtime pay on Christmas provides some much-needed extra cash.
This Christmas will be Tam’s third working for the ambulance service. His team’s job is to carry patients between hospitals in the greater Treasure Valley. The average Christmas shift is “one of the slower” days of the year, he said, with three to six ground trips.
Tam said patients can be scared and need emotional support. They may have been stabilized after an emergency but are about to be admitted to a hospital. Or they need specialized care they cannot get in McCall. Or they have just learned they have leukemia after an emergency room visit, and their next stop is the cancer unit.
On Christmas, as on any other day, Tam offers a shoulder to lean on. He tries to help manage patients’ pain, “trying to make them as comfortable as I can on their worst day.”
The critical-care teams will get together for a dinner with turkey and stuffing, and there’s a Secret Santa gift exchange, he said.
“Our group is really pretty tight-knit,” he said. “We also need that support — some of the things we see — so Christmas to me is still the family atmosphere.”
From 10 to 11, it’s pretty sedate. Then sometimes, after a while, you get custodial interference — someone not bringing the child or dropping off the child — and boy, let me tell you, it can get pretty heated. ... As the day goes on, when (people are) together with family, sometimes you have drinking going on, and you can get in family fights. ... On Christmas, people get a lot of brand new phones, and (that means) lots of pocket dials.
Julie Avery, emergency dispatcher for Ada County, on typical Christmas Day 911 calls
Even local employees of chains such as Starbucks will be donning uniforms Christmas morning so their stores can serve customers.
More than 300 of 1,000 U.S. workers surveyed by Allstate/National Journal’s Heartland Monitor Poll in fall 2014 said they were likely to work at least one of the major holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day.
64 Number of people who responded to an unscientific Statesman website poll
16 Number who said they are working Christmas Day this year
14 Number who said their job requires staffing that day
Why would anyone forgo a day off? Sometimes it’s required. Sometimes the extra holiday pay is too tempting to pass up. Sometimes workers step up so colleagues don’t have to.
Kevin O’Rourke and Stephen Scharf are among the latter. They’re security officers at St. Luke’s Regional Medical Center in Boise.
O’Rourke, 60, is a former police officer who lives in Meridian and works two or three days a week at the hospital. When he was younger, O’Rourke worked “a lot of holidays” because he was low on the totem pole and needed the money. As he progressed in his career with the police department’s bike patrol, he got holidays off work. Now that his children are grown and he is divorced, he doesn’t mind spending the holiday at the office.
Scharf is a 31-year-old Boisean. He doesn’t have children, but many of his co-workers do, so he always volunteers to work Christmas.
Tomorrow will be his seventh Christmas shift at the hospital. From noon to 10 p.m., he will be at his “awesome little command center.” As the designated holiday dispatcher, Scharf handles emergencies and sends people where they need to go.
But sometimes the Christmas shift is slow, giving him time for random acts of kindness such as offering a ride through the parking lot to a visitor who isn’t up to a freezing-cold walk to the car.
Stephen Scharf, a Boise hospital security officer, works every Christmas. His job includes everything from changing tires for a senior patient to responding when there’s an emergency. “We have a rule here: We don’t say the ‘Q word’ — quiet,” he said. But the hospital tends to be quieter than usual on Christmas.
Scharf, who graduated from college last weekend, also likes the extra pay and the free Christmas meal that comes with working a holiday.
“And half the time, you’ll have administrators coming in and doling out the food to people,” he said with a chuckle. “Last year, the director of my department was giving out mashed potatoes and turkey.”
Sometimes, hospital powers-that-be will send someone around with a cart full of candy, like a sugary Santa Claus, he said.
A couple of years ago, Scharf spent time helping a family that was stuck in the St. Luke’s Meridian emergency room at Christmas.
“There was this mother and sick baby,” with an older child in tow, he said. “I’m sitting in the lobby, got crayons and a coloring book, (while) Mom is running back and forth.”
Audrey Dutton is a business and watchdog reporter. She will be the Statesman’s reporter on duty New Year’s Day but will spend Christmas at home with her mother and boyfriend. 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey
Treasure Valley all-hours employees
360 EMTs and paramedics
170 911 dispatchers
5,810 Registered nurses
1,220 Police and sheriff’s patrol officers
940 Corrections officers
300 Aircraft mechanics and service techs
360 Taxi drivers and chauffeurs
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics