Should facilities staff work over the Holiday breaks or not?
As with many departments in a school, there's never really a "good time" to take time off when you work in facilities. There's always something to do, and we're always playing catch up in facilities. The holiday break is no different. So, this question comes up every year and has been a common debate between the two differing beliefs for the past twenty years that I’ve worked in schools: Should facilities staff take the school holiday extended break off, or should the team be working during this time? To be clear, this isn't a question about the actual Holiday; this is about the associated breaks of 2-3 weeks.
I'll preface this by saying that our company believes in working holiday breaks, which also has always been my personal preference. Both sides have fair points and no right or wrong answer. There are merely two different perspectives and approaches to managing facilities teams. This opinion is from my career experience in both the private and public sector.
When I started as a maintenance tech and later as a facilities manager, our team worked every holiday break for the first ten years. Every year, our team would move to high speed during this time; we'd fix or replace the things that always broke, have the school deep cleaned, perform light renovations, work side by side with our vendors, and perform preventative tasks for the building's upcoming six months of school. This was our MO; we took pride in working while others were away and wore this as a badge of honor. We learned new skills and sought to take on tasks that saved the school money by performing them in-house. Staff returned and couldn't believe the work done over such a short period. We were often compensated with a holiday bonus and the ability to take time off after the break using flex days or PTO. However, every year after returning from break, there were always the comments and conversations of "you had to work over break? That's not fair," "Everyone gets time off, but the facilities team has to stay and work?" All were fair questions and comments, sometimes lacking perspective, but all were fair. Over time, the facilities staff started asking me the same questions. A few of them eventually started resenting that they had to work when everyone else got two and a half weeks away.
This finally compounded, and it was decided around my 10th or 11th year there that the facilities team would no longer work over the holiday break. The staff were excited about spending two weeks with their family and thankful to the school for allowing them this break. Honestly, I was excited at this point. I had accrued over 400 hours of PTO throughout the years. I wasn't known for taking much time off and was ready for some time off.
In the second year of taking the breaks along with all the staff, we returned a couple of days ahead of everyone to clean the campus, only to find the HVAC wasn't working; the building was freezing! A Heat Exchanger failed on the building's central unit. To make matters worse, the replacement parts weren't readily available. It took a week and a half for the part to come in. It was a bad look for our department and not something we were used to. Ironically, the people who two years earlier were telling us it was unfair we weren't given the same break schedule, were the loudest people telling me this was unacceptable. Truth be told though, it was. There was no scenario where this should've happened. Having the students in cold classrooms in the middle of winter for a week was NOT the standard we'd worked so hard to set.
From then on, I went to work every break for at least for a couple of days, to check on the building and do some light maintenance around the campus. I never wanted to be in that situation again. We continued to experience similar situations as the years passed, although not as catastrophic. The campus never seemed ready for the second half of school, and we always felt a couple of weeks behind until summer break. Not to mention, our summers were now more overloaded with the work that was no longer done in the winter. We also decided it was best to limit the number of vacation days that could be taken in the summer, to ensure the work got done.
Another example later in my career was when I worked in a school district. I distinctly remember sitting at the bargaining table with the local union representatives, and this topic came up. It was short-lived. The issue was raised; we plead our case to continue working the breaks. The union chapter representative told us a story about how her mother was formerly a custodian; she explained how her mother elevated her career from a custodian to a lead custodian to a custodial manager by using the break periods to advance her skills and the team's skill level and also thoroughly cleaning the campus. She (the chapter representative) firmly believed that working over the holiday breaks was in the best interest of the union members and settled on teams that would continue to work through the holiday breaks but be given three additional flex days for all members to take.
The obvious perspective is that staff should take time off to be with their families; however, for Facilities teams, that is when you can get a lot accomplished so that you don’t have to squeeze all the projects into summer.