Nov. 17, 2004, 8:26PM


Companies whooping it up in more style these holidays


Last year, Tony Pannagl served beer and wine at his annual holiday party. This year, hard liquor will be poured at the open bar.

"Last year, I spent money I didn't have," said Pannagl, managing partner of IS&T, a Houston computer technology consulting firm. And he limited the party to a small number of employees and clients.

Pannagl is in a celebratory mood this year because revenue is setting records and was able to send invitations to all his clients and 65 employees.

Companies may be eliminating jobs and reducing employee health insurance, but they're ready to party.

Seventy-five percent of companies are hosting a holiday party for employees, compared to 68 percent last year, according to a Hewitt Associates national survey of 271 companies.

And they're spending a lot more. This year companies are shelling out a median $20,000, compared to $11,050 last year.

Companies want to say "Thank you" to their employees for a good year, said Ken Abosch, business leader for Hewitt's talent consulting practice.

Abosch suspects companies are also spending more on parties because many have done away with year-end holiday gifts such as hams, cheese trays or gift certificates.

Companies believe they get more good will and morale out of a festive party than handing out frozen turkeys, he said.

Rhonda Marlin, director of human resources for the intellectual property law firm of Moser, Patterson & Sheridan in Houston, said employees stop her all year long and mention how much they enjoyed last year's party.

This year has been especially good for the growing law firm, which does patent applications, said Marlin, and the firm wanted to reward that effort.

So Marlin is putting on a fancier soiree for employees and their spouses. She booked the tea room at the Junior League, hired a band and will be serving a sit-down dinner next month. Marlin estimates she'll spend 20 percent more than she spent last year entertaining about 90.

To extend the season, one of the partners will host a two-night open house at his home for all employees.

The firm will also host a "white elephant" party and potluck luncheon at the office and, for the first time, it hired a baker to come in one afternoon and show the children of its employees how to make a gingerbread house.

"We're a very hard-working firm," she said. "It really gives you a chance to know other families better."

Activities are popular

Abosch said he's noticed more companies are planning their parties around activities this year. For some reason, billiard parlors are popular. Bowling is too.

But that doesn't mean fancy events are out of style. All the party rooms for every Friday and Saturday night during December were reserved months ago at the Hotel Derek.

It's never been this busy, said sales and marketing director Tracy Fitz, especially from petrochemical companies, law firms and medical companies.

They're spending a lot more money on hors d'oeuvres and cocktails to elaborate themed events, said Fitz.

One company will entertain its employees with a casino while another is putting on its own Oscars show complete with celebrity look-alikes, paparazzi and a red carpet.

"They're not batting an eye on spending," he said, estimating that companies are spending about 25 percent more this year on extra courses such as sorbet, custom touches such as martini bars and better food.

"Beef is back," asserts Fitz.

Michael Cordua, owner and chef of Churrascos, Amazon Grill, Artista and Americas, is taking advantage of the demand for private party space by renovating the former Tortuga restaurant on Kirby.

It will open Dec. 1, and it's already booked for every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday in December, he said. Demand is especially strong for private parties since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he said. Travel fell off and the restaurant industry has done a good job encouraging companies to entertain close to home.

Good days back for some

High oil prices might not have created many new jobs but it sure makes the parties better.

"I think we're back on the good days," said Cedric Guerin, executive chef of La Tour d'Argent, which re-opened this week after being closed for two years.

Energy companies have opened their wallets this year and they're asking for big ticket items such as Dover sole and name-brand wine, said Guerin. When oil prices were low, Guerin heard more requests for salmon and house wine.

Energy companies are spending $70 to $80 an employee instead of the $35 to $50 a person tab he saw last year when he was running another restaurant.

But not everyone is getting a chance to celebrate those high energy prices.

Jim Lefton, international representative for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union in Houston, said he hasn't heard of any energy company holiday parties,
lavish or otherwise, that his union members have been invited to.

"Matter of fact," said Lefton, "we'll be lucky if we get a turkey leg."

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 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

  Nov. 24, 2004, 9:14PM


Each day is casual to some U.S. Postal Service folks


There's no mail today because it's a federal holiday. But Ricky Hurt will be working. He's a "casual" or temporary U.S. Postal Service worker and he doesn't get holidays off.


He also doesn't get vacation days, sick leave or health insurance all the perks that regular or "career" postal workers receive.

Even though he's a so-called "casual" worker, Hurt has been working for the Postal Service since July 2002 handling and sorting mail.

That's nothing, he said. Other "casuals" have been processing and carrying mail for five years, working alongside the regular workers who are paid substantially more and receive a full array of federal government benefits.

Hurt wants one of those career jobs with the Postal Service. He has repeatedly asked the union that represents his co-workers, the American Postal Workers Union, to take up the fight.

"I'd love to have them," said Linda Castillo, president of the American Postal Workers Union's Houston Area local. "But they're just not part of our jurisdiction."

The contract between the postal workers and the Postal Service specifically excludes the casual workers, said Castillo, who represents 3,900 local clerks, drivers and maintenance workers.

But Hurt argues that the union has a responsibility to take up the fight for the casuals. They do the same work, yet with huge differences in compensation. Hurt receives $10 an hour. Castillo said a similar career job would start at $15 to $16 an hour plus benefits.

And there's another catch.

Casuals are not supposed to work more than 180 days during a calendar year, according to the union's labor contract with the Postal Service. They're supposed to be supplemental workers who help out during busy periods.

To get around that restriction, postal officials tell the casuals to take five or six days off every 180 days, said Hurt. After the break, the casuals present a new set of fingerprints and background check and they're re-hired.

New application, new job

Castillo is well aware of how the system works.

"We file grievances when that happens because it affects our career employees," said Castillo. The part-time career employees end up with fewer hours because the Postal Service would rather use the cheaper workers.

Every six months the Postal Service changes their classification, said Castillo. They hire them as a clerk and six months later, hire them as a carrier.

"Once they've trained them, they don't want to let them go," she said. "But it's not casual or temporary work when you're working that many years."

Nationwide, the Postal Service has 20,662 casual workers, according to the Postal Service's financial and operating statements for the first six months of 2004. Houston has 200 casual mail carriers and 30 mail handlers plus an unknown number of casual clerks and processors.

Many corporations rely on supplemental work forces and the post office is part of that trend, said David Lewin, spokesman for the Postal Service in Houston.

It provides important flexibility at a time when the business is undergoing a lot of changes with the Internet and e-mail, said Lewin.

'Basically' the same work

The work the casuals perform is "basically" the same as the jobs done by career employees, he said, but the job classification is the result of national labor negotiations.

Casual employees are encouraged to take the postal exam to become career employees, he said.

Hurt scoffed at that suggestion. He said he has passed the test along with many other casual workers. But they still can't get a career job.

Lewin said that many casual workers have indeed passed. They're placed on a register and it can take several years to eventually get hired, he said.

Casuals may have rights

Mike Muskat, an employment lawyer with Vinson & Elkins who has handled several cases involving federal labor relations law, suggested the casual workers might explore whether they're really employees instead of temporaries.

After all, other employers have mislabeld their employees as independent contractors or other workers who aren't eligible for benefits.

Under federal labor laws, unions are only obligated to look out for the interests of those workers they represent, said Muskat. But if the casuals are really mislabeled regular employees, they can appeal to the union for representation.

The casuals can file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board or use an internal union grievance procedure, he said.

"It surprises me that the union wouldn't want to claim these casuals," said Muskat. "They'd be paying dues."

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  Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


Dec. 1, 2004, 9:24PM


Labor leaders say rulings don't help unions a bit


After working hard to defeat President Bush's bid for a second term, labor unions have received a couple of unpleasant surprises since his victory.

The National Labor Relations Board ruled that temporary workers from a staffing agency can't be lumped together with "regular employees" to bargain jointly, unless both employers agree.

The decision, which involved a nursing home in New York, reversed an earlier ruling by the so-called "Clinton Board" in 2000 that allowed unions to combine regular and contingent workers, which made it easier for unions to organize the modern workplace.

Many employers increasingly rely on temporary workers as a core part of their work force.

"It doesn't help organizing a bit," said Stewart Acuff, organizing director for the AFL-CIO in Washington.

And it doesn't make sense, he said, because the people who work together have the same issues over pay and working conditions, even though they have different corporate names on their paychecks.

E. Dale Wortham, president of the AFL-CIO of Harris County, said he's worried that if an employer faces a union organizing campaign, he might turn all his employees into temporary workers.

In a separate case involving another nursing home, the labor board ruled that employers could impose general anti-harassment policies on their workers without them being seen as anti-union-organizing tactics.

The nursing home's prohibitions against profane language, harassment and abuse were "intended to maintain order" and not limit union organizing, according to the ruling.

In the past, the existence of such a general anti-harassment workplace policy was all the ammunition a union needed to convince the board that an employer was engaged in anti-organizing activities, said John L. Collins, an employment lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in Houston.

The prohibition was so strong it was used to invalidate elections employers had won, even if no one was disciplined for harassment, Collins said.

Treat workers the same

The issue of anti-harassment policies typically came into play during organizing drives, when workers were encouraged to sign union representation cards, Collins said. Some workers might view the "cajoling" as harassment, even though the activity is protected by federal labor law.

Though employers can prohibit general harassment, they can't single out union organizers for discipline, Collins said. Employers have to treat all employees the same.

Incidentally, the labor board's decision doesn't affect workplace harassment policies against sex, race, national origin or religious discrimination. Those common policies, which many employers have adopted to protect themselves and their employees, cover a specific kind of prohibited behavior that's already covered by civil rights laws.

Teaching employees

The rulings are in line with other recent decisions by the board that have had the effect of limiting union organizing, Acuff said.

In July, for example, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a case involving Brown University that graduate teaching assistants are not employees and, therefore, cannot organize a union. That reversed a Clinton-era case involving New York University where graduate teaching assistants were ruled to be employees.

In September, a group of disabled janitors in Florida lost a bid to form a union because the board sided with the employer, which argued that they were in a rehabilitation program and therefore not employees.

Hurdle and opportunity

As you might expect, this latest ruling is becoming quite a concern to union leaders.

It may end up changing the way unions organize, said Wortham, who, in addition to his AFL-CIO Harris County duties, is a vice president of the International Brotherhood of the Electrical Workers Local 716. Unions may end up aggressively organizing temporary employment agencies, Wortham said.

"It's a hurdle, but it can be viewed as an opportunity if we handle it properly," he said.

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 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle