Working over New Year's Eve? Better read the fine print first.

When I was about 12 there was a documentary on television about the year 2000.

When I was about 12 there was a documentary on television about the year 2000. It focused on how people around the world might celebrate the turn of the century. (It was probably one of the last documentaries on the topic which didn’t mention the Y2K problem.) The programme resulted in various discussions with my friends and family about where they would be at that time and how we would celebrate that New Year. I remember debating with friends the best place to be. Barbados was winning (because some pop group with big hair had recently shot a video there) and then someone calculated how old we would be come 1999. Suddenly we realised there was no point in even thinking about it. "We’ll be so old then, what does it matter?" was the attitude we all had, with a wisdom only 12-year-olds have. Surely by then we would have long forgotten how to have fun … I no longer think I’m past enjoying New Year’s Eve 1999, however, and although my plans are still a bit hazy, I do know — as much as I enjoy my job — they won’t involve working. This is a big issue throughout New Zealand as recent publicity has noted — particularly in areas such as tourism and emergency services. But given the obvious importance of IT skills when it comes to the Y2K problem, it’s an issue that affects many IT workers as well. Good employers, with a bit of foresight, will have sorted out with their staff who is covering the Y2K period by now and whether it’s important to have someone working that night and weekend, or merely on call in case of problems. But what are your rights as far as working this magic date is concerned? What happens, for example, if your boss wants you to cover the New Year period and you’re not keen? Well, Wellington-based Kensington Swan employment lawyer Michael Quigg says your first port of call is to check your contract. Quigg says the Holidays Act allows every employee 11 statutory holidays. This year, two of those holidays, New Year’s Day and the day after, fall on a Saturday and Sunday, so the statutory holidays get transferred to the Monday and Tuesday. So effectively if you’re being asked to work on January 1 or 2 this year, those days are being treated as a regular weekend. If you work on a rostered basis in the general course of your work, you will probably be expected to work statutory holidays or weekends as part of that. The same can apply to people who are on call. If your contract says you are required to work or be on call on weekends, then Quigg says you’re probably contractually bound just to turn up on Saturday, January 1. "If your contract obligates you to be on call, you’ve got to stay within ‘X’ distance from work, you’ve got to be in a fit state to work — that means stay off the alcohol etc — and be able to drive." However, if you’re not obligated to work statutory holidays or weekends under your contract, (your normal work week is Monday to Friday), Quigg says it’s a "free world". "And if you can negotiate three or four times [what you’d normally be paid] good luck to you." However, Quigg acknowledges that saying "no" may not be that simple. "Some people might think that to refuse might not be a career-enhancing move. The legal situation is that you’re free to say no, but with the commercial reality, people might feel some pressure to say yes." He warns employers that legally they can’t force people to work against their will — unless the employee is obligated under their contract. Mills is Computerworld’s careers editor and can be contacted at kirstin_mills@idg.co.nz or ph: 03-467-2869 or fax: 0-3-467 2875.

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