Friday, March 09, 2007

Mon Gauloise! The cigarette pause that refreshes

Recently, I saw in The Economist that on February 1st, France became the latest country to outlaw smoking in offices. No more unfiltered Gitanes passed around the boardroom. No more secondary sacre bleu smoke to inhale. Défense de fumer is the law of the land. 

The last time I saw Paris (May 2004, I think), you could still smoke in restaurants, so I'm hoping/guessing that no smoking in offices means no smoking in eating establishments, too. Which will certainly be a breath of fresh air. Everytime we went into a restaurant, I asked in my tortured, one-tense high school French whether they had a non-smoking section. I could seldom understand the torrent of information I got back in response, except to say that it generally involved some blather about the air filtration system, and generally ended up with us sitting in one of the two non-smoking tables plunked in the middle of Marlboro Country (pays Marlboro?).

So no smoking in the workplace is obviously a good -  a votre santé for everyone. But what's of interest is what happens to those who still want/need to take a few drags to get through the work day.

Well, for one, they're now relegated to the sidewalk, and I'm sure that France will have to go through what we've been through here as non-smokers who don't want to run the smoke-filled gauntlet demand that the smokers move further and further away from the entrances. But where the French smokers will be smoking is far less interesting than whether they'll get paid for their pause cigarette - or have to make it up.

For those unfamiliar with French labor laws, they have a fairly strictly observed 35 hour work week. So they're now facing a debate on whether cigarette breaks should be included in the regular hours, or whether smoking workers should be docked for the time spent.

Once I get over my general wonderment at the idea of a 35 hour work week, I can actually see both sides of this debate.

If you start to monitor everyone's cigarette breaks, why not their trips to the water cooler? Why not their bio breaks? Why not their gossip sessions?  And doing all of this monitoring doesn't exactly sound like it will enhance productivity, now does it?

On the other hand, if someone takes a cigarette break every hour or so - certainly not unheard of for a pack a day smoker - that's quite a bit less time you're getting out of someone. When you could smoke at your desk it was one thing. You could still type, read, talk on the phone, look at your computer screen. But if you have to get up from  your desk, walk to the elevator, go outside, smoke, take your return trip - what was a negligible productivity hit is now 10 minutes for each break. One-sixth of your time. That adds up.

Even if they take their laptop with them, or their cell phone to make business calls, there's still the to-ing and fro-ing to take into account. In any case, ignoring the smoking breaks entirely will likely result less work getting done by the smokers - and greater resentment (and gold bricking) on the part of the non-smokers who feel that they have to pull extra weight because of their colleague's vices.

Surely, there are examples that the French can draw on. Obviously there are factories and other workplaces all over the world that have figured out how to let smokers smoke without burning a hole in anyone's pocket.

Personally, smoking has factored very little in my career. Anyone actually smoking in the office is a vague and distant memory, back there in the great beyond with smoking in movie theaters and smoking on planes, which at this point are just unimaginable.

But I did have one period in my life during which I did smoke.

As a Durgin-Park waitress, I shared the habit with just about everybody else who worked there. Durgin - an ancient, landmark restaurant in Boston's Quincy Market, once noted for its surly waitresses - a bunch of us would chip in and buy packs of Marlboros, which we'd leave in various cubby holes around the edges of the restaurant floor. Whenever there was a break in the action, you could just grab a cigarette and find someplace off in a corner to go take a break in peace. The break was finite - the three or so minutes it took you to smoke a cigarette - and a good little respite from dealing with surly patrons, surly cooks, the surly owners, surly fellow waitresses - and with the strain of being surly yourself (which is not all that easy when you are a sweet young thing).

Half-way through your infinitely relaxing cigarette -  and the stare-off-into-space little fugue we'd all go into while smoking - someone would always come looking for you.

The guys with Beanpot tickets were looking for their check. The BO lobsters were up. Some fuss-budget on nine had found what looked like a fingernail in her cole-slaw. The nit-wit who ordered two-dozen oysters on the half-shell just figured out they wre raw, even though you'd told him explicitly.

"Tell 'm I'll be right with them," we'd always say. "Lemme just finish my cigarette first."


randonneur said...

Cafés and restaurants are exempted from the recent ban on smoking in public buildings. (There is an existing requirement that they have non-smoking areas, but -- as Pink Slip correcly noted -- that requirement does not achieve much in practice. Very few restaurants have distinctly separate areas for smoking and non-smoking.) The new ban on smoking will apply to cafés and restaurants early next year. Smoking is supposed to be permitted only in rooms with special ventilation systems that prevent the smoke from penetrating the non-smoking area -- which would be physically difficult and/or prohibitively expensive for many places. It will be interesting to see if the ban is observed and enforced.

Maureen Rogers said...

Well, sacre bleu smoke. Apparently some Internet cigarette vendor spammed with a comment which I didn't notice. This was followed up by a comment in French that went along the lines of "these guys are crooks and swindlers". So, au revoir to both comments.