Employers look at cutting down on workers' commutes

Brent Cranfield can thank his boss for saving him money at the pump.

With gas prices so high, Georgia House Speaker Glenn Richardson is letting staffers telecommute one day a week this summer. For Cranfield, who works in the communications office, that means one less trip each week in his Ford Explorer from suburban Marietta to downtown Atlanta and back — saving more than $25 a month on his 16- to 17-mile commute.

Cranfield plans to use the savings to help buy a more fuel-efficient car — "I'm actually waiting for the '09 Camrys to come out so I can try to grab an '08 and get some of that initial sticker price taken off of it."

Some employers are reconsidering the traditional five-days-in-the-office pattern as the national average price for a gallon of gas hovers around $4. The idea is to whittle down commuting costs for workers by allowing them to work from home or switch to four days of 10 hours each.

Telecommuting has gained traction year by year with advances in video conferencing, instant messaging and other communications technologies. Employers typically adopt it as a way to save money, boost morale and retain workers.

But Chuck Wilsker of The Telework Coalition said it has grown faster since the post-Hurricane Katrina gas price spike of 2005. And he believes prices have climbed so high now that managers — who must grant workers permission to telecommute — are feeling the pinch too.

"It's affecting people's disposable income," Wilsker said. "And all of the sudden they're saying 'I've got to do something about this!"'

The coalition estimates that more than 26 million Americans now telecommute at least some days, which would be about 18% of people employed nationwide. Though he did not have figures related to the gas spike, Wilsker said anecdotal reports indicate it's gaining traction.

Longtime participants — which include Fortune 500 companies like Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. — usually adopt the practice to lower operating costs and keep employees satisfied. But IBM's Laurie Friedman said gas prices are making it much more popular among employees. Andrea Ayers, president for customer management at call-center and billing services company Convergys, said veteran employees are showing more interest in working at home to save commuting time and costs.

Then there are more recent gas spike-inspired experimenters — many of them public employers — like at the Georgia Capitol.

"With gas prices exceeding $3.50 a gallon and no end in sight to the increases I want to try and do something to help you with that burden," Richardson wrote in an April staff memo.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation requiring the head of each federal agency to set policies allowing qualified workers to work from home or another convenient location. Giving relief from high gas prices was one factor cited by the sponsor, Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill.

Savings can add up fast. Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun estimates that its more than 18,000 employees who can choose to work at home or the nearest office avoid buying 135 gallons of gas a year, which at $4 a gallon would save $540 each. Deborah Bryan, a program manager for IBM in Boulder, Colo., who switched to telecommuting in April, said she now spends $88 to fill up her Ford Expedition every third week, instead of weekly.

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