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26 Years on the Job and Not One Sick Day

When Antonio de Sousa's car broke down on the way to work, calling a tow truck didn't enter his mind.

Instead, he left the car beside the highway and ran five miles through downtown Tampa, Fla., to get to his job as a doorman at the Hyatt Regency hotel. "I was all sweaty, but I made it on time, at exactly 3 o'clock," he says. That sprint years ago kept him on track toward his current record: 26 years of perfect attendance.

It may be hard to believe in an era of floods, flu epidemics and flexible schedules, but some people haven't missed a day of work in decades. They buck up when feeling ill and schedule events and activities around weekends and vacation days. They say, of course, that they keep coming for one reason: They love their jobs. Some own up, too, that streaks are just irresistible.

Even so, fewer employers these days are rewarding perfect attendance with cash or gifts, partly because they don't want people coming to work sick. Also, growth in jobs that can be done from anywhere has shifted employers' focus away from stressing face time, toward "getting them to do their best work possible" from wherever they are, says Bob Nelson, an author on employee motivation and president of Nelson Motivation in San Diego.

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But attendance is still important for non-managers and managers alike, especially in manufacturing, health-care and service jobs. And while some employees may try to game the system—pretending to be working off-site or failing to report absences to their managers—none of the people interviewed for this column said they would stoop to that.

"I just love my job," Mr. de Sousa says. He remembers the faces and occupations of repeat guests, greeting them by name and asking, "'How's your business?' People love to talk about their business. Their eyes light up." His boss, hotel manager Derrick Morrow, calls Mr. de Sousa, 53, "the mayor of Tampa Street," where the hotel is located; some repeat guests choose the hotel because of him, he adds. "He is our chief marketing guy out front."

Mr. de Sousa's co-workers have accused him of timing the birth of his two children, Natalie and John, around his job. Both were born on his regular day off at the time, Monday. He celebrated the births and headed back to work at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, as scheduled. Even he acknowledges it was "kind of weird." He adds, "It was a coincidence." He and his wife Diane, a bookstore employee, have since helped put Natalie, now 21, and John, 23, through college.

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Colleagues sometimes wonder if marathon workers would be better off at home. Stacey Taylor has been showing up nonstop for 25 years for her nursing job at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "If I wake up not feeling well, I just figure I'll soon feel better," says Ms. Taylor, 50. "I don't even think about not getting up." A rare bout with the flu last year came on her day off.

At work, "I have the opportunity to learn something new every day" by listening to doctors and pharmacists, says Ms. Taylor, 50, who has been promoted to acting nurse manager. "And there's always something to do. I'm never bored."

Ms. Taylor's boss, JoAnn Ioannou, once tried to send her home. "I could tell she had a cold. She had a mask on, and she didn't look well," says Ms. Ioannou, assistant director of medical nursing. But Ms. Taylor insisted the cold was minor, and when Ms. Ioannou made her take her temperature, it was normal. Ms. Taylor finished her workday wearing the mask, with no ill effects, says Ms. Ioannou. "She has an incredible work ethic." She created a "Cal Ripken Award," for Ms. Taylor a few years ago and gave her a certificate.

Employees at Merle Norman Cosmetics can get a diamond ring or washer and dryer for nine years' perfect attendance. After 25 years of perfect attendance, Ed Batka, 59, a compounding specialist at the company's Los Angeles facility, says "I get razzed once in a while. People say, 'Why don't you take a day off? Is there something wrong with you?'" His answer: "You won't be laughing when I'm up there at the attendance awards, getting my gift"—which last year was a free trip to Hawaii, where he and his wife renewed their marriage vows.

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Rhea Holt, 72, hasn't missed a day on his job as a service technician for Autow NationaLease Truck Rental, a Nashville, Tenn., truck-leasing company, since eight months before his current boss was born in 1966. "He is 100% dependable," says Lee Harlan, president of the third-generation family business.

Mr. Holt, whose first job was picking cotton at age 8, says he enjoys his work. "I don't like staying home. My wife has too many 'honey-dos,' " lists of repairs, painting and other chores she wants him to do.

Eighty-five-year-old Elena Griffing hasn't taken a sick day on her job at an Oakland, Calif., hospital since 1948, when she was out with a cold for one day. She started in 1946 as a receptionist in the lab, where she helped out by catheterizing male frogs to get the urine specimens used in pregnancy tests at the time. She has worked various jobs in endocrinology, public relations and the burn unit at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center's Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., campuses.

When she was 80, she cut back to four days a week to care for an elderly sister. Wearing her trademark high heels and lab coat, she helps patients and guests track down lost articles.

Her boss Holly Colin, director of patient relations, was alarmed when a police officer called on Ms. Griffing's behalf before work one day a few years ago. Her car had skidded off a wet road in a heavy storm on the way to work, and the message the officer relayed was, "Don't worry, my car is down the ravine, but I'll be in later," she says. Ms. Colin drove to the accident site, where Ms. Griffing's first words were, "What are you doing here? You're supposed to be at work," Ms. Colin says.

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Ms. Griffing's car was totaled, but she wasn't injured and didn't get ticketed. She was intent on going to work, but Ms. Colin insisted she go home. "I took it as a vacation day because I wasn't hurt," Ms. Griffing says. "I have a record to uphold here."

She hasn't any plans to retire, but says she may cut back to three days a week in a few years. "I want to go from my desk to the morgue," she says, "with nothing in between."

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