As Four-Day Workweek Ends, Utah Opens on Fridays
By Melissa Maynard, Staff Writer
This week, for the first time since 2008, Utah state government will be open for five days, marking the end of the state's closely watched experiment with a four-day workweek.
That experiment, known in Utah as the "four-tens" workweek — most state offices were closed on Fridays but open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday — began under former Governor Jon Huntsman, who is now a Republican candidate for president. Depending on whom you ask, the strategy either was wildly successful and deserved to continue, or was a flop that inconvenienced many people while saving less money than it was supposed to.
Ultimately what upended this first-of-its kind policy at the state level was its unpopularity with state legislators. Their skepticism began when Huntsman implemented the change on his own, using his prerogative as chief executive, rather than selling them on the concept. Later, lawmakers said they were bombarded with complaints from constituents who didn't like driving to the Department of Motor Vehicles on a Friday only to find shuttered offices. "It seemed like a no-brainer because a lot of legislators received these complaints," says state Senator and Majority Whip Wayne Niederhauser. "The state should be open on a complete basis."
Some businesses complained, too. "The lack of accessibility on Fridays was just really an inconvenience for a lot of businesses," says Marty Carpenter, communications director for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. "With everyone else working on a Friday, it was weird for state employees not to be in the office," he says.
Critics, including some in the legislature, saw three-day weekends for public employees as a lavish perk and yet another example of out-of-control public employee benefits. Still, the policy would have been difficult to undo if it were saving Utah a lot of money. It wasn't. Huntsman launched the program amidst a spike in energy prices; keeping offices closed for a day was expected to save $3 million per year on gas and electric bills. Thanks to the recession, energy prices did not continue to rise as projected. According to a report from the governor's office, the annual energy savings attributable to the four-tens policy added up to just $502,000.
By and large, state employees liked the four-tens workweek. When it went into effect, state employees hadn't received a raise in years, so the three-day weekends came to be seen as a consolation prize. Although some complained that work encroached on their Monday through Thursday evenings — resulting in missing their children's soccer games, for example — 82 percent of the workforce preferred the schedule, according to a survey of state workers conducted by the Department of Human Resource Management.
Another survey focused on citizens seems to suggest that the public was not as outraged about Friday office closures as state legislators believed. Some 80 percent favored continuing the schedule or had no preference either way. Governor Gary Herbert, who replaced Huntsman when he was appointed Ambassador to China, supported the policy and ordered only slight modifications to it, requiring one centrally located Department of Motor Vehicles and a few other offices to remain open on Fridays.
The formal assessments that have been done on the policy paint a mixed picture, with debatable benefits that vary widely from agency to agency. A July 2010 audit from the Legislative Auditor General pegged total savings from the initiative at less than $1 million. Even the reported $502,000 reduction in utility costs isn't solely attributable to the four-tens schedule; agencies also have begun improving climate-control systems in larger buildings and limiting their use to a core set of operating hours whenever possible.
While the state has reduced overtime costs by $4.1 million, much of those savings came from the Department of Corrections, where few employees work the new schedule because of the 24/7 nature of prisons. State fleet costs dropped by $1.4 million in the first year, but that was more a result of an effort to reduce use of state vehicles than the absence of driving on Fridays. The audit did confirm a $203,000 reduction in janitorial costs.
Some agencies whose employees travel or require long start-up times each day reported boosts in productivity. Others reported decreases in productivity because of timing and scheduling conflicts. "We work with a lot of contractors and consultants, and none of them take Fridays off," one state employee told the office of the Legislative Auditor General. "It is often frustrating for them when our agency sets tight deadlines and schedules but then nobody is available to answer questions or resolve issues on Friday. They often lose valuable time because we are not available on Fridays." Some agencies saved less on energy costs than others because of the necessity of regulating temperatures in labs or for employees whose responsibilities require them to come into the office on Fridays.
Beyond the simple cost of utilities in state buildings, another explicit goal of the initiative was to protect the environment. The environmental impacts have been significant and less elusive than cost savings, in a state where air quality is a serious concern. Changes in commuting patterns reduced annual gasoline consumption by 774,000 gallons, according to a report from the governor's office. Reduced energy consumption in state office buildings decreased carbon emissions by 4,546 metric tons annually.
In March, Herbert vetoed the legislature's bill requiring the state to be open on Fridays, explaining in a statement that "the people of Utah have grown accustomed to extended Monday through Thursday hours" and the change "would be too disruptive, and simply bad policy." He promised to issue an executive order making critical public services available on Fridays, but this didn't satisfy the legislature, which issued a surprise override in May.
'It can work'
Does Utah's abandonment of the four-tens schedule signal the end of the idea's viability in the public sector? Some management experts familiar with Utah's implementation don't think so. "Overall, Utah's experience with four-tens worked very, very well," Rex Facer, a professor of public finance and management at Brigham Young University who researches four-day workweeks and helped Utah evaluate its program. "I don't think it was for any implementation design failure that the legislature pushed back. I think it was for other reasons."
"If you look at the data, it can work," adds Jeff Herring, who oversaw implementation of the program as the state's personnel director under both Huntsman and Herbert. "It's do-able." Herring's key lesson learned from Utah's experience — and advice for other states interested in experimenting with alternative work schedules — is the importance of communicating early and often with employees, the public and the legislature.
States such as Nevada, Georgia, Texas, Virginia and Hawaii have explored similar approaches in the past few years, but no other state has gone statewide with the schedule for the bulk of its workforce. Compressed workweeks are far more common in local governments, where in some cases they have been in place for more than a decade as a way to cut costs.
In a random national phone survey of cities with populations of more than 25,000 that Facer and his colleague, Lori Wadsworth, conducted, almost half reported offering some form of compressed work week to at least some of their employees. The HR directors interviewed for the project reported benefits including improvements in morale and work-life balance for employees and better customer service and employee productivity, along with reduced absenteeism and overtime and overhead costs. The most common drawback was found to be scheduling — especially difficulty scheduling meetings among employees not working the same schedules.
Wadsworth says it will be interesting to see how the change in policy impacts turnover in Utah state government down the road, especially once the economy picks up. The four-tens schedule has proved to be a helpful tool for recruiting and retaining talented workers, who are sometimes willing to choose an extra day on the ski slopes or with their children over higher salaries.
"Younger people really care about these kinds of issues," she says. "They want to be able to have an exciting career, but they also want to be able to have plenty of time to spend with family and friends."