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Working on Christmas Day

5 December 2019

Many New Zealanders will be waking up of Christmas morning with plans to spend time with family, friends or just enjoying the New Zealand summer. Others will be getting ready for work in roles where the work doesn't stop just because Santa has visited.

Many businesses close down over the Christmas and New Year period as a matter of custom as the period includes 4 public holidays. Other businesses are prevented from operating on Christmas Day as it is a restricted trading day in New Zealand.

A number of workplaces providing essential services will always be in operation on Christmas day - such as hospitals, prisons, and the police who will face no less work than any other day of the year. Other less essential workplaces will be in full operation due to the nature of their work such as news organisations or television stations, or may be in partial operation with a skeleton crew or an employee on call in case there is a Christmas Day emergency.

Each of these employees should be compensated for working the public holiday under the Holidays Act 2003. Like any other public holiday, the workers are entitled to be paid time and a half, and receive a day in lieu (if the day would otherwise be a working day for the employee).

In addition, many employers will seek to bring some Christmas cheer into the workplace. This can range from some token decorations, providing (or mandating) santa hats for employees or even small gifts or treats to recognise the difficulty of working the public holiday. Many newsrooms for example will have a shared lunch on Christmas Day.

Some employees may elect to work the Christmas period, preferring to use their time off for an alternate time of the year that has greater significance or convenience for them.

A recent news story out of Glasgow demonstrates that some employees may even elect to volunteer to work Christmas Day. The Waterloo Street branch of Nando's in Glasgow's city centre has promised to open on Christmas Day exclusively to feed the homeless. Employees of the branch have volunteered to serve the food. Nando's has also called on the Glasgow public to help the cause by donating winter items, toiletries and sleeping bags to be provided to the homeless diners. Bins have been placed in the restaurant's entrance for donations. The initiative came from the Nando's staff who approached the General Manager with the idea.

In New Zealand, there are certainly individuals who also selflessly volunteer their Christmas Day to serve food to the homeless in shelters and specially arranged lunches. However, care should be taken when employees are volunteering in the workplace. Recent Employment Court decisions on unpaid time in the workplace have been clear that work should be compensated with at least the minimum wage.

A key example is Labour Inspector v Smiths City Group Ltd where unpaid morning meetings were found to be work as the employer imposed constraints on the workers, the workers were discharging responsibilities and the meetings benefitted the employer. Even if all parties are willing, minimum employment entitlements cannot be contracted out of, and there is no legal exception for "spreading Christmas cheer".

Employees and employers should bear in mind that even on Christmas Day, all normal employment rights and obligations apply, whether an individual is working, on leave or on call.

So whether you are working, celebrating with family and friends, or simply enjoying the summer sleep-in, have a safe and merry Christmas period!


Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm and Women's Refuge are partnering to bring your business an understanding of the effects of domestic violence and the new laws assisting victims of domestic violence at work. Contact us to discuss your needs.

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