Stephen Mach, a 37-year old Chinese-Vietnamese American legal assistant living in Los Angeles, said that during Lunar New Year this year, instead of filing manila folders at his law office, he’ll be handing out red envelopes.
Mach represents the growing number of young professionals who are taking time off work that day, which this year falls on Feb. 10, even though it’s not a company holiday. That’s thanks to greater awareness of the holiday, cultural acceptance at work, support from employee resource groups and more, according to employees and diversity experts.
Lunar New Year — which encompasses Chinese New Year, Tết in Vietnam, Seollal in Korea and more — marks the beginning of the year and celebrates the arrival of spring on the lunisolar calendar. The holiday is celebrated by an estimated 2 billion people worldwide, and, in countries where the holiday is observed, it is typical to take at least a few days off work and school to celebrate with friends and family.
Jean Lee, CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said that companies have become very sensitive to requests by employees, offering floating holidays as a way to allow employees flexible paid time off. “Most of our member companies and firms even recognize special holidays like Diwali, like Lunar New Year, in the same way, culturally, people recognize you know, like Rosh Hashana,” Lee said.
Mach said he’s fortunate enough to work for a law firm headed by a Chinese employer of Vietnamese origin, who understands the cultural importance of Lunar New Year.
Despite it falling on a Saturday this year, his employer is allowing any employees who may celebrate to take either Friday or Monday off as a floating holiday. He added that previous employers did not allow him time off for the cultural holiday. This allows him to spend the time cooking up a large family dinner and getting his fill all weekend of classic Vietnamese New Year dishes at a convention center in Southern California’s Orange County.
Not yet a nationally recognized holiday
In late 2022, California became the first state to recognize Lunar New Year as an official but optional state holiday, when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2596, effective by the start of 2023. Lunar New Year was also recently recognized as a school holiday for all public schools in the state of New York, following legislation signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul in September of last year.
No state requires that workers receive paid time off for Lunar New Year. Because Lunar New Year is not recognized as an official holiday across the country, Asian Americans are having to figure out ways to balance their professional commitments and celebrating culture.
Ryan Đoan-Nguyễn, a Vietnamese American, said Tết, or Vietnamese New Year, is the most important time of year for his family. Đoan-Nguyễn, who is working at an immigration and refugee legal clinic at Harvard Law School, said he plans his work commitments around the holiday, guaranteeing that he will be able to go home to join the festivities.
“Luckily, I haven’t had to take time off for that reason, but I always am planning and preparing to, just in case,” he said. In past years, other family members have sometimes had to use their vacation days or paid time off to attend celebrations, he added.
Every year, the seven sons in his father’s family take turns hosting an elaborate party to ring in the new year — and this year, it was his family’s turn.
“Everyone will come to our house in Central Massachusetts and we have a full day of activities planned: so much great food, karaoke and music and a lot of traditions like bầu cua cá cọp (gourd crab fish tiger),” he said.
Still, it’s not as easy to take the holiday off in some industries
Finding ways to take paid time off is more difficult for some Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, who work in fields or industries where they are unable to take the time as easily, but some experts are hopeful.
Cheryl Thompson, CEO of the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement, said one way to approach the topic of paid holidays is to reframe the discussion for jobs in labor-intensive industries, such as the automotive and industrial industries, as an issue of employee safety and well-being.
“It’s not only physical safety, it’s psychological safety as well, and so you want to help empower workers to express their needs and their wants,” she said.
Thompson added that with smaller companies, it can often be easier to request time off to celebrate cultural holidays, such as Lunar New Year, because there is less of a bureaucratic structure to wade through for approval.
Nevertheless, Asian Americans in other industries can still struggle to take paid time off due to the break-neck pace of their work or the demands of their industry.
Jen Kim, a Korean American adoptee, is a production coordinator and manager in the film industry. She said that working in film is a lot less flexible than working a typical corporate job. “With film, you don’t or can’t [take time off]. You just schedule even doctor’s appointments for times when you’re not on a project,” Kim said.
Nonetheless, she said she tries to find time to celebrate with friends, fellow Korean adoptees, by getting together and cooking traditional Korean or Chinese foods.
Additionally, Lee, from the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said she does not often take time off for Lunar New Year, simply because the legal industry is extremely busy. “Having practiced law in New York City, I don’t know too many lawyers who will take time off for any major holiday,” said Lee, who is Korean American.
“Me working on Lunar New Year is no different than me working on any other holiday, which I pretty much have done while I practiced law for the last I don’t know how many years,” Lee said.
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