Millions on Washington Mall Represent Thousands of Days Off

By Staff Report

Jan. 20, 2009

American workers juggled schedules and cashed in sick days and paid leave as they sought to be among the millions who descended upon the National Mall in Washington to witness the historic inauguration of the country’s first African-American president.

Coming to Washington is a short trip for John Paul Held, who lives in Odenton, Maryland. But getting out of work required its own journey.

Held was one of 20 workers at a Whole Foods Market in Annapolis, Maryland, who asked for a free day to attend the inauguration. With so much demand, Held had to make up time—doing inventory—to have his January 20 free.

“I ended up working Monday at 4 a.m. so I could be here today,” he said. “I had to do some schedule-flipping and begging.”

He was the seventh or eighth person asking for time off at his store. Christina Held, also of Odenton, was quicker on the draw. She is a waitress at the Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, Maryland.

“As soon as Obama got elected, I sent an e-mail to my boss to request the day off,” Christina Held said. She got her wish.

Her colleagues rue the fact that they tarried and are working today. “They’re jealous,” she said.

It wasn’t necessarily first-come, first-served at the Morrow County Board for the Mentally Retarded and Developmentally Disabled in Mount Gilead, Ohio, where Lorrie Williams serves as an administrator.

She had to stretch her workdays last month to create free time in January. “I worked extra hours before Christmas,” Williams said.

Williams was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who came to Washington as chaperones for groups of junior high and high school students. Kids made up a large share of those attending the inauguration, hitting the capital as if every school system in the nation took spring break at the same time.

Even among the youth cohort, however, there were work worries. Tabitha Lassen, a junior at Tri-Valley High School in Dresden, Ohio, came to Washington to participate in inaugural activities hosted by Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington.

But first, she had to get time off work. It was a bit of a challenge.

Only four months ago, she found a job at a Dresden pizza parlor that offered a “perfect” location and a work schedule that accommodated her extracurricular activities, including marching band.

When she got the chance to come to Washington for the inauguration, she couldn’t turn it down. At first, however, her boss said she failed to give him enough notice.

“I apologized and told him I couldn’t give him more notice,” Lassen said.

If she had blocked out her schedule and then the Washington trip fell through, she would have lost workdays and pay.

“If I told him before I could go, then those hours would have been wasted,” she said.

For workers in the District of Columbia, the path to the inauguration was easier. Many companies in town gave their workforce the day off. Security restrictions made a typical business day impossible.

Brennan Snow is a product specialist at B-Line Medical, a software company in Washington. The firm gave its employees a floating holiday that they could use for either Martin Luther King Jr. Day or for the inauguration. Alternatively, they could exercise a work-at-home day.

“Our company was kind of cool about it,” Snow said. “They didn’t ride our butts about making it into the office.”

The largest employer in Washington—the federal government—gave everyone the day off. That meant it was no problem for Sharmane Watson, a secretary at the Patent and Trademark Office, to join her family for the inauguration.

Her husband, Moses Watson, is employed in a part of government that was especially busy on January 20—the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. He works on computer systems inside squad cars.

“I’m not essential personnel, so I took off,” he said.

Sharmane Watson summed up why they—and most everyone else—left work behind on inauguration day.

“I’m just here to be part of history,” she said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr. 

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