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Is Spain saying ‘adios’ to the siesta?

Spanish government ministries will now close by 6 p.m. as part of a package of measures designed to help Spaniards balance jobs and families. The new measures went into effect on Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Who could turn down a two-hour lunch fueled with good wine and the lure of a post-meal siesta? Spaniards would love to.

Many have schedules chopped in half with extensive breaks, making the workday so long that home is a place they only visit.

Now relief is at hand, at least for civil servants: government offices are closing earlier and offering flex time to help people spend more time with friends and family.

Many Spanish civil servants work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., break for lunch, then come back as late as 4:30 p.m. for another three hours. Add 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., with lunch breaks averaging between 30 minutes and an hour.

But under a law that went into effect Tuesday, Spanish government ministries will close by 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 responsible for the civil service, said that for him it was “a happy day as a minister, a civil servant and a father of three.”

The half-million Spaniards who 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.

Adios to the siesta
Many Spanish workers — not just civil servants — have work schedules with lengthy lunch breaks, which have 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 an after-lunch snooze.

Diego Trujillo is a case in point. He is a 23-year-old computer technician working for a computer company subcontracted by the Spanish environment ministry.

He is single with no kids but would love to have a streamlined schedule, with a half-hour lunch break rather than the 90-minute pause he takes now. His daily round-trip commute on trains and buses takes about two hours.

“Everyone prefers that schedule. I know very few people who prefer to have a long lunch break,” he said. “The only good thing about public transportation is that it gives you time to read. But I prefer to read at home.”

Antonio Santos, a 54-year-old urban planning consultant who also does work for the government and has a one-hour break for lunch, said the broken-up schedule dates back decades to when everybody went home for lunch. The custom has persisted despite long commutes that force people to eat in restaurants near their offices.

In the private sector, he said, change will be slow in coming, even if other European countries manage shorter work days.

“In the private sector, the workload rules,” he said.

Still, Sevilla says he hopes the Spanish private sector will follow suit with the latest changes so Spaniards can work European-style hours and get their work done.

Long hours, low productivity
A prominent Spanish think-tank, the Business Circle, said in a report 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.

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.

Civil servants also can reduce their number of working hours by up to half — with a corresponding cut in pay — if they have children younger than 12.

Sevilla 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 this leave time extended to all civil servants.