Employers look at cutting down on workers' commutes

Millions of American workers cannot telecommute because they build houses, serve food, mow lawns, treat patients or perform other jobs tied to specific locations. Some companies have responded with programs ranging from van-pooling to bike-sharing.

Another alternative is compressing the five-day work week into four, 10-hour days. Condensed work weeks are the most popular program for employers trying to reduce workers' commuting costs, according to a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a job placement consulting group.

The Kentucky Secretary of State, Trey Grayson, is offering employees a four-day week in light of high gas prices.

Oklahoma House Rep. Mike Shelton is encouraging state agencies to adopt a compressed work week to spare employees some pain at the pump. On New York's Long Island, Suffolk County Legislator Wayne Horsley is making a similar proposal.

In West Virginia, Doug Stalnaker of the House of Delegates said an interim study is being conducted to see if a four-day week makes sense for state employees — especially rural workers with long commutes. West Virginia foresters already are testing a four-day schedule, though fuel costs were a secondary consideration after creating more efficient work schedules.

Officials in College Township, Pa., are looking into expanding employees' workday to 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with either Monday or Friday off as a way to save electricity and fuel costs. Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said he came up with the idea after watching pump prices rise twice in one day last month.

But employers have traditionally been leery of changes that could leave the office empty on Friday, which is why the Georgia House employees must stagger their telecommuting days. Another fear is employees slacking off — either because they're at home or working long stretches.

The National Recreation and Park Association, an advocacy group, had "mixed success" last summer with a gas price-inspired program that allowed employees to telecommute a day a week or go to four-10-hour days, said spokesman John Crosby. He said there were nagging problems, like telecommuters failing to forward their calls to home phones or work left just shy of done on Thursday afternoons.

"They'd say 'Well, my day's over and I'll get to it on Monday,' and that became problematic," Crosby said.

Other employers report success.

Workers at Green River Cabins in Campobello, S.C., have been working Monday through Thursday for a few years after workers voiced concerns about high gas prices. Building wooden cabins is demanding work, but owner Dean Garritson said there are no signs his carpenters are lagging at the end of the day.

"A three-day weekend is a wonderful incentive," Garritson said, adding that employees also earn more money when production increases.

Ann Bamesberger, a vice president with Sun, said the company believes the program increases productivity. Sun says workers who take part in the program give 60% of their saved commute time back to the company.

Michelle Merrick of Frederick, Md., a work-at-home manager for VIPdesk, which provides customer support over the phone for corporate clients, said it's just easier to work at home.

"When you're in an office you have people around you wanting to chat, all that watercooler chat," she said, "That is totally out."

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