Since many workers can't make it to traditional New Year's Eve parties this year because of Y2K duty, some employers are bringing the party to them.
In Dulles, America Online Inc. is holding a "golden oldies" party, featuring a disc jockey, games and door prizes, for the 200 employees expected to work and their families. At Fannie Mae's headquarters in the District, several hundred workers will enjoy a sit-down dinner in the company's palatial Great Hall, serenaded by a jazz ensemble. Their children will feast nearby, tended by babysitters and entertained by a magician and a caricaturist.
Sparkling cider, instead of champagne, will be served at those parties so people will stay razor-sharp on the job, company officials said. But at American Management Systems Inc. in Fairfax, workers may get a drop or two of bubbly at midnight if everything seems under control.
Other firms are offering other incentives: extra pay and gift certificates at Bethesda defense company Lockheed Martin Corp.; a $2,000 bonus and future hotel-champagne getaway at Burson-Marsteller, the New York public relations giant.
This New Year's Eve is an unusual holiday in many ways, including the Y2K challenge that is requiring record numbers of workers to remain on the job over the weekend to monitor computer systems.
With a tight labor market, human resources issues are being given a new priority, and many companies are trying to compensate for the long work hours by making the weekend as pleasant as possible for those manning the barricades.
"We realize this is an incredible inconvenience for people and something of an imposition on family time," said Carol Teasley, vice president for the year 2000 at Fannie Mae. "We've taken away their opportunity to celebrate the biggest New Year's Eve of their lives, so we hope this makes up for it."
About 20 percent of companies are holding parties to sweeten the experience for workers, according to nationwide surveys conducted by New York-based human resources consulting firm William M. Mercer. Meanwhile, about one in six firms is offering cash bonuses or other compensation, the survey found; about a third are providing free hotel lodging over the weekend, and 14 percent are furnishing transportation so weary workers need not drive.
The single most popular amenity is free meals for workers, with about half of the companies surveyed planning them. At AMS, for example, Iris Warren, 36, global Y2K program manager, will sit down to a catered lasagna dinner on New Year's Eve with her husband, Eric, a business manager at Honeywell Inc., and their two children, Jasmine, 3, and Brandon, 1.
The meal will be served to the family in the company's largest conference room. When they have finished eating, Eric, 37, and the kids will head to their Fairfax Station home while Warren returns to the company's telecommunications command center to help ward off any year-end computer glitches.
"I'll be at work all day Friday, and I won't be able to cook," Warren said. "This will give us time to be together on New Year's Eve. If AMS wasn't so accommodating, I probably wouldn't have been able to see my family at all, in my line of work."
At Children's National Medical Center in the District, top managers, including the hospital's chief executive officer, will work 12-hour shifts over the weekend to keep their co-workers company. They'll be pushing food carts laden with free sandwiches, fresh vegetables, cookies and beverages for workers through the hospital wards and computer operations center.
The executives' participation has helped employees feel that working on New Year's weekend is a shared obligation rather than an unfair imposition, said Jacqueline Bowens, the hospital's vice president of government affairs.
"I'd love to be with my kids [Jorden, 11, and Courtney, 13], but I'm excited to see we're all equal in stepping up," Bowens said. "My husband is with the police department, so you know where he'll be. Our kids are understanding that we need to put our needs aside for those of other people."
The Mercer surveys suggest that some companies found it was necessary to offer additional inducements to get workers to participate. In June, for example, about 5 percent of firms said they intended to offer additional compensation to workers, but when Mercer repeated the survey in October, it found that 15 percent said they would give out extra cash. In June, 36 percent of firms were giving workers additional paid time off, but by October that number had risen to 56 percent.
Parties and extra pay may be essential for some companies with already-existing morale problems. "Especially at a time when unemployment is very low, some companies are already treading on thin ice," said Chicago-based human resources consultant John Challenger. "People might up and leave, saying, 'Why should I do this?' . . . There are a lot of people who thought it would be the greatest bash, the biggest celebration of the century. In fact, it's turning out to be the most extensive working day ever."
Some companies that offered special perks found themselves with plenty of volunteers. Burson-Marsteller decided in the spring that it needed to set up 20 Y2K command centers around the country to be available if clients needed help, and that each would need to be staffed, with other workers available on call. Executives knew employees would be less than thrilled with the news.
"Like all companies, we grappled with how to break it to our employees that they'd be working New Year's weekend," said Gus Weill, chairman of the firm's corporate and financial practice. So they decided to offer $2,000 bonuses and, at some future date the worker chose, a free hotel room and bottle of champagne for a romantic getaway. More than 200 workers rushed to volunteer for about 100 slots, Weill said.
"The response was overwhelming," he said. ". . . Some told us they would have done it even without the bonuses."
Philip Murphy, 38, of Wilton, Conn., a speechwriter at Burson-Marsteller, was one of those eager volunteers. He said he'll be working off-site at a financial client's Y2K bunker in Brooklyn--and he said he wouldn't miss it for the world.
"As we get closer and closer, it's getting more exciting," Murphy said. "I'm secretly pleased to be participating in an event rather than sitting home on New Year's Eve and falling asleep."
Murphy said the bonus and other perks have made it easier to bear the separation that night from his wife and 3-year-old daughter. "We'll take that hotel room and the champagne," which he said would be "as romantic as it could be, with a 3-year-old."
The Westin Grand Hotel in the District normally requires only three or four overnight workers, but to cover every possible contingency, management asked for 25 volunteers, including front desk, engineering, security, housekeeping and restaurant workers, to stay over on New Year's Eve. Free hotel rooms were offered so the employees could stay overnight with their spouses. Participants also will be guests at a special reception.
"We made it voluntary and we had enough key people volunteer for those shifts," said William Petrella, the hotel's general manager. "It's one they will remember."
Additional pay has brightened the spirits of hundreds of Lockheed Martin employees who will work at installations around the country ensuring that defense computer systems remain functional. For them, working on those days is a hardship because the company typically shuts down for the week between Christmas and New Year's.
Spokeswoman Elaine Hinsdale said the company waived its normal human resources rules to permit salaried as well as hourly workers to get overtime pay. Employees at Lockheed will get time-and-a-half for overtime hours, and double pay for holiday hours worked, Hinsdale said.
They will also each receive a $100 bookstore gift certificate and a chance at raffle prizes including $500 weekend getaway packages and personal computers. "We're trying to make it as pain free as possible," Hinsdale said.
Some company executives have decided it would be too disruptive to hold a party now when they want their people to be focused on the work at hand. At BellSouth in Atlanta, the big corporate bash will come in February, when workers who toil this week to keep the phone lines buzzing will be hosted at a black-tie dinner at a luxury hotel.
"It's a way for the company to demonstrate its appreciation to people who worked to make sure things continue to go well," said BellSouth spokesman Joe Chandler.
Staff writer Judith Mbuya contributed to this report.