Global HR - Less Time for Lunch

By Joanne Deschenaux Jun 13, 2008
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HR Magazine, June 2008The siesta in Spain is disappearing under the pressures of international business and big-city commuting.

Travel guides about Spain warn tourists that because of the siesta -- the tradition of a long break for lunch and a nap -- shops and businesses may be closed for a good part of the afternoon. But at least in Spain's major cities, the siesta gradually is giving way to the influences of globalization and work/life balance.

Employers in Spain have been re-thinking their practice of permitting long afternoon breaks that extend the Spanish workday far into the evening. The siesta can interrupt Spanish companies' dealings with other European businesses for a large portion of the workday. Moreover, it is becoming impractical for employees in the larger cities to travel home for lunch, and the length of the workday is becoming an issue for many employees.

The change now under way in Spain illustrates that it's not a quick or easy task to alter a long-standing workplace practice -- one that has been entrenched in the culture for generations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, working hours in Spain were similar to those in the rest of Europe. Historians speculate that schedules shifted in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, when many Spaniards had to hold down two jobs and would eat lunch between them -- around 3 p.m. That explanation is drawn from a paper advocating the adoption of "European work hours" by Nuria Chinchilla, head of the International Cen­ter on Work and Family at the University of Navarra in Barcelona. "We have stayed with the worst of the epoch, when it's not necessary today," she writes.

Another reason often cited for the custom of employers granting employees siesta breaks: the midday heat in Spain. "You try not to work from 2 to 4 when the sun is strong and it is very hot," says Juan Bonilla, an attorney with Cuatrecasas, a law firm in Barcelona. "That's another reason the siesta may have been implemented in Spain and not in, say, Norway."

Manuel Martinez-Herrera, an attorney with White and Case in New York who grew up in Spain and has worked in Barcelona, notes how ingrained the custom of a late lunch followed by a nap has become in Spanish culture: "Growing up in Spain, you are encouraged to take siestas when you are little. When I was in college and law school, I took a two-hour siesta. It was part of the day, reflecting how we were raised."

Nonetheless, workplace accommoda­tions for siesta now "are not what they used to be" even among Spanish companies, Martinez-Herrera says. He attributes the change to "globalization and multinationals coming to Spain." European companies and multinationals are not used to a long lunch break in the middle of a workday and "tend not to go for it," he says.

Martinez-Herrera notes "more of a tradition in Spanish companies" to accommodate the siesta. "They have been doing this for so long, it's harder for them not to do it."

In fact, although the Spanish government did away with the siesta for its workers in January 2006 and adopted a one-hour lunch break and a 6 p.m. closing time, private employers have not been quick to follow suit.

Jorge Lopez, an attorney with Littler Mendelson in Miami who represents multi­national companies doing business in Spain, sees "a slow trend, particularly in big cities like Madrid and Barcelona, toward the American style of a one-hour lunch and an earlier end to the workday." And he expects shorter lunch breaks will gradually become the norm as Spain becomes more incorporated into the European Union (EU).

Nonetheless, expect "push back from a cultural standpoint," Lopez adds. "Getting rid of the long lunch hour won't be easy since it is ingrained in the mentality of the Spanish worker."

Bonilla notes that commuting issues are also playing a part in the disappearance of the siesta. "In places like Madrid and Barcelona, employees may have a long trip to and from work," he says, so going home for lunch no longer makes sense. He is seeing a change in his law practice, centered in Barcelona: "I used to get a lot of calls from clients at 8:30 in the evening. Now, I get calls from 2 to 4, but almost never after 9 at night. Companies are changing the way that they do business."

Time Crunches

Two reasons most often cited in support for the end of the siesta: the need for Spain to be in sync with the rest of Europe in doing business and improvements in work/life balance that result from shortening the Spanish workday.

Lopez observes that it can be difficult to get business done with Spanish companies that abide by a two-hour break at midday.

"Companies doing business internationally are trying to standardize their working times," Bonilla says.

Researchers at Fundación Independiente, a research organization in Madrid seeking to align the Spanish work schedule with the 9-to-5 routine common in the rest of the EU, write in a paper: "Today, while Spain's neighbors to the north have already digested their meal, the lunch hour in Spain is just beginning, and often it lasts not just an hour but hours. Such a lengthy meal makes it difficult for employees and managers in Spain and other European countries to make arrangements between midday and 4 p.m."

In addition, the Spanish workday with its two-hour lunch lasts until 7 or 8 at night. Particularly for employees with children, Bonilla says, "it doesn't make sense to end work late at night. It's better to have a short lunch break and go home earlier." Many schools have changed their policies of sending children home for lunch, he adds. "Now children have lunch at school, and there is less of an incentive for parents to go home. … Most employees say, 'I prefer not to have a long lunch break if I can go home earlier.' "

A Deliberate Pace

In the Spanish system, Lopez explains, everyone works under a contract that details "the benefits as to a particular type of position, whatever the position. The contract spells out benefits, even to the point of the length of lunch." Thus, because the lunch hour is in the contract, an employer "can't just say, 'OK, my policy is that now I'll just have a one-hour lunch.' "

So how would a business change its policy? First, Bonilla says, the employer must examine the collective agreement -- mandatory in Spain. The agreement is reached between a union and an employers' association, and it establishes the minimum terms and con­ditions of employment for an entire industry. Usually, there will be nothing in the collective agreement to prevent an employer from changing work hours.

Next, Bonilla continues, the employer proceeds in one of two ways -- by using a direct or a consultative approach -- depending on whether there are workers' representatives in the workplace. These representatives work part time and pursue employees' interests the rest of the time; they are paid for full-time work. An office with more than 50 employees is likely to have such representatives, he explains; a smaller office is less likely to have them. When there are more than three workers' representatives in a workplace, they are considered a "works council."

The Direct Approach

If it does not have workers' representatives, an employer must write a letter to employees that gives a business-related reason for the proposed policy switch. The reason, according to Spanish law, must be "economic, technical, organizational or productive."

For example, an em­ployer might claim that because the company receives numerous phone calls at lunchtime and few calls after 6 p.m., the office needs to be in operation at lunchtime. Or a business with offices in other EU countries might document a need to harmonize work policies, Bonilla suggests.

In addition to providing a reason, the employer must give at least 30 days' notice. If employees accept the change, that's the end of the process, Bonilla explains. But if employees are not happy with the change, they can go to court and argue that the given business reason isn't valid.

The Consultative Approach

A company that has workers' representatives must follow a consultation process for at least 15 days. During that time, the employer would explain why it wants to make the change and try to reach agreement with the representatives.

If a consensus is reached, the employer would send a letter to affected employees telling them of the policy change. And "that's the end of the story," Bonilla says. "It's difficult for employees to challenge an agreement reached with a works council."

If the employer and the works council don't agree but the employer still wants to implement the change, the employer must write a letter to employees explaining the reason for the change and giving them 30 days' notice. But, because the employer has not reached agreement with the works council, employees can challenge the decision by going to court to say that the reason for the change is not sufficient, Bonilla notes.

Finally, Bonilla points out that although a works council will probably say yes if an employer asks to change its work hours, the works council "may make a request -- one that has an economic impact -- and ask for a lunch allowance" in the form of a meal ticket or voucher to cover the average cost of a restaurant lunch, since most employees could no longer go home for lunch.

Granting such vouchers usually does not increase employees' income for tax purposes, and Bonilla says that "generally, when employers pay for vouchers, they might say, 'Well, OK, I won't pay you for other things.' It's a negotiation."

An Enduring Tradition

Although the siesta is becoming a practice of the past in Spain's largest cities, Bonilla notes that shops and offices in smaller towns still close at lunchtime. Lopez, too, observes that "in practice, outside the major cities in particular, it is not uncommon to have a break from 2 to 4."

Donald Dowling, an attorney with White and Case in New York who has family living in Andalusia, says that "in the south of Spain, the siesta is alive and well. Offices and stores still routinely close for a big chunk of the midday, even in the big cities in Andalusia" -- such as Seville, Malaga and Cordoba -- "and then they stay open late, by American standards.

"If you want to schedule a 3 p.m. meeting or go into a bank or store at 3 p.m., forget about it."

The author is senior legal editor of HR Magazine.

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