Spain tries to help reconcile jobs and family, proposes shorter lunches and flex time

Wednesday, December 28th 2005, 12:43 pm
By: News On 6

MADRID, Spain (AP) _ Spain is closing government offices earlier and giving employees more flex time to help reconcile work and family, trying to bring its practices in line with other European countries despite a reputation for siestas and long work days.

Many Spanish civil servants work from 9 to 2, break for lunch, then come back as late as 4:30 in the afternoon for another three hours. Add another hour of commuting time in the morning and evening and people spend 12 hours or more away from home every day.

Elsewhere across Europe, most government workers are done with work and out of the office by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. while lunch breaks average between 30 minutes and an hour.

Under a law that went into effect Tuesday, Spanish government ministries will close no later than 6 p.m. as part of a package of measures designed to help Spaniards balance jobs and families.

When the package was approved earlier this month in a government decree, Jordi Sevilla, the minister for public administration, which includes the civil service, said that for him it was ``a happy day as a minister, a civil servant and a father of three.''

Civil servants _ half a million Spaniards work for the central government _ will now have the option of taking shorter lunch breaks, so long as they fulfill their weekly requirement of working hours, which is 37.5 or 40, depending on the job.

Many Spanish workers _ not just civil servants _ have work schedules with long breaks at lunch time and that pause has long been associated with the custom of taking a midday nap, or siesta. But polls suggest that, at least in cities, people live so far from their offices that few have the time to head home for a post-lunch nap.

Sevilla has said he hopes the Spanish private sector will follow suit in the latest changes.

A prominent Spanish think-tank, the Business Circle, said in a report issued last week that Spanish workers in general put in a lot of hours _ just below counterparts in Japan and more than people in Canada and Britain, for instance _ but have low productivity.

Only 61 percent of their time on the job is spent efficiently, the report said, quoting Proudfoot Consulting, which is part of London-based Management Consulting Group PLC.

Sevilla thinks Spain can work European-style shorter hours and get their work done.

Other changes in the new law will let male government employees take 10 days off with pay to help take care of newborns or newly adopted children, up from three days. And civil servants can also reduce their number of working hours by up to half _ with a corresponding cut in pay _ if they have children under age 12.

Sevilla, whose three children are adopted, recalled this month that when he adopted his second child in 2000, he was the Socialist Party's chief official for economic affairs and asked party leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero _ now the prime minister _ for some time off.

``He gave it to me. I took 10 or 12 days off. I felt privileged to have something that the vast majority of people did not,'' he said.

He said that when he became minister in 2004, he decided to push to have leave time extended to all civil servants.