THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Curbing ‘hack holidays’ to cost more than $1m

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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Budget hawks celebrated last year when Governor Deval Patrick signed a law requiring government offices in Suffolk County to open on Evacuation Day and Bunker Hill Day.

At last, it seemed, the so-called hack holidays were going away.

But it turns out the holidays live on, and the law, rather than ending a generous benefit, will cost taxpayers more than $1 million this year because the communities of Suffolk County — Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop — will be paying extra to staff their offices.

The reason: while the law says government offices must open on the holidays, many union contracts still give Suffolk County’s public workers a paid day off. So the cities and towns are forced either to give those workers double-time on the holidays, or two paid days off later.

“This is just the last straw that makes it even more difficult to manage in the public sector,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-backed budget watchdog group.

But union officials defend the perk.

“I saw it as benefit to make up for the low-paid wages and salaries that folks in my chapter in City Hall were saddled with,’’ said Bruce T. Boccardy, president of Service Employees International Union Local 888, which represents 2,000 municipal employees in Boston. “It was a nice little benefit. The city offered it, and we obviously accepted it. Anybody would accept it. It was common sense.’’

Boston will have to pay $1.53 million this year to keep the doors of its offices open on the holidays, said Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

In Revere, city officials are bracing for thousands of dollars in additional costs, just to pay one person per department to work in City Hall on the holidays, said Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino.

“It’s just one additional aggravation on top of the many others we have to deal with,’’ he said.

Jay Gonzalez, Patrick’s budget chief, said the law was not designed as a cost-cutting measure, but to ensure that government offices in Suffolk County would be open to the public on the same days that other government offices are open.

“There is a public perception around the unfairness that government employees in a particular part of the state have paid days off when other people don’t,’’ Gonzalez said. “Symbolically, you can’t justify it.’’

He expressed hope that the law will help local and state officials eliminate the holidays from union contracts.

“Right now, it is not a money-saver but over time, to the extent we, in future contract negotiations, can take these holidays out, it could be,’’ Gonzalez said.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray agreed, saying in a joint statement yesterday that the Legislature could not eliminate the holidays from union contracts, but “as existing contracts expire, the state will save money.’’

The holidays have proven extraordinarily resilient, withstanding years of public scorn.

First approved as Suffolk County holidays by Governor Leverett A. Saltonstall in 1941, Evacuation Day, on March 17, commemorates the date in 1776 when British troops ended their occupation of Boston.

Bunker Hill Day, on June 17, marks the bloody Revolutionary War battle near Charlestown.

Supporters in the Legislature have long defended the holidays as cherished reminders of the region’s rich history. But critics have derided them as examples of government excess in an era when many private sector workers have been laid off or seen their wages and benefits slashed.

Last year, Patrick and the Legislature reached a compromise: to keep the holidays on the state’s books but declare that government offices in Suffolk County “shall be open for business and appropriately staffed’’ on those days.

Gonzalez said all state offices in Suffolk County will open on the holidays this year — as state offices in other counties always do — but employees who come to work on those days will be able to take two paid days off later in the year.

State courts will also open on the holidays, but all court employees — union and nonunion — who work those days will be given paid days off later, said Joan Kenney, a court spokeswoman.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.