State Workers: Thank God It's Thursday

 

(Updated 1:45 p.m. EDT, June 30, 2008)

In the face of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a growing number of states are offering their employees four-day workweeks to help relieve commuting costs and save on state energy bills.

 In the boldest step so far, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) announced June 26 that he is imposing a four-day workweek on about 17,000 state employees starting the first week of August and continuing for at least a year. Employees will work 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and about 1,000 of the 3,000 state buildings will be closed on Fridays. Essential services, such as highway patrols, courts, public schools and colleges, will not be affected by the changes, which are expected to save the state $3 million, said Lisa Roskelley, the governor's spokeswoman.

 While Utah is the first to make four-day workweeks mandatory, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) announced two weeks ago that her office was considering work-schedule alternatives to help commuters save fuel. And New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) has ordered each state agency to adopt a policy for telecommuting and alternate work schedules by Sept. 1.

 High gasoline prices led Kentucky and South Carolina to offer compressed workweeks to a handful of its state employees this summer. A smattering of other states - Arkansas, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Vermont among them - are considering expanding existing programs to more state agencies.

 Some state universities and community colleges are moving to four-day work weeks for the summer, and the trend has emerged in numerous city, county and other local governments.

 Utah stands alone as the only to state to shut down offices on Fridays, and meanwhile is encouraging citizens to make better use of online state services. Departments in other states, where flex-time and four-day schedules have been offered to some employees for years, remain open five days a week by staggering workers' schedules.

Supporters say four-day workweeks help commuter-clogged roads, give people access to government services for longer hours, reduce emissions and conserve energy at state facilities - a residual benefit that saves taxpayers money. Keeping workers home once a week is particularly appealing in rural states where mass transit is limited or non-existent.

Critics of the compressed workweek charge it's an inconvenience for the customers government is required to serve. Others argue the extended workdays burden those who require daycare for children or have special commuting arrangements. Even advocates say four-day work weeks aren't for all employees.

Concentrating on one task for 10 hours a day can be tiresome or unbearable for some state employees, such as those investigating child abuse, said Kay Durnett, executive director of the Arkansas State Employees Association (ASEA).

But the benefits of a shorter workweek are obvious to 52-year-old Craig Tuck of Higgins Lake, Mich., who commutes 148 miles a day to his job with the Michigan Department of Community Health.

Tuck says he puts $150 of gas in his Buick Regal every week and makes slightly more than $20 an hour as a 15-year state employee. Switching jobs isn't an option because unemployment in Michigan's struggling economy is so high. Moving closer to work wouldn't lead to savings either, he said, because his fiancé would have to travel farther to her job.

In her June 16 statement, Michigan's Granholm said that while "the nature of the job and the needs of certain customers prevent telecommuting and flex schedules from being a viable option for every position in state government, it does make sense for many positions."

 Tuck and other state employees in his facility advocate compressing their workweeks to the 10-hours-a-day, four-day schedule.

 "I'm glad the governor has seen this as a problem, but I'm saddened that we had to get to this point to support [alternatives]," Tuck said.

 While Ohio's economy, like Michigan's, is struggling from a waning manufacturing industry and high unemployment, state officials there say government services and their customers come first.

"Agencies should use a compressed workweek schedule only when a specific business process warrants such a schedule," a Feb. 2 government memo from the Department of Administrative Services reads. "In most situations, personal circumstances should not be a fact or in the decision to utilize a compressed workweek schedule."

State lawmakers in Arkansas have agreed to study a four-day workweek plan from state Sen. Tracy Steele (D). Fewer than half of Arkansas state agencies, boards and commissions offer flex-time policies, which allow workers to adjust their work schedules, ASEA's Durnett said.

About 400 people use ASEA's vanpool program, and many more have been placed on a waiting list because demand is so high, she said.

In Kentucky, 15 of 33 eligible employees in the secretary of state's office are now working with staggered four-day workweeks after the program was introduced in mid-June and will remain in effect for several months as a trial. Productivity has increased and office morale is higher, and some are using the extra time off to work second jobs because of a salary freeze initiated several years ago, said Les Fugate, deputy assistant secretary of state.

In a recent study, researchers from Brigham Young University showed that city employees in Spanish Fork, Utah, who work four 10-hour days a week reported less at-home conflict, which the workers said increased efficiency at work and job satisfaction. In Oklahoma, state Rep. Mike Shelton (D) and the Oklahoma Public Employees Association are pushing to close government offices one day a week.

"Hardworking state employees need a break, and without a pay increase, a condensed work schedule is the best way to give it to them," Shelton said in a news release ahead of a July 9 hearing about four-day workweeks.

In New Mexico, part of Richardson's plan to consider alternate work schedules could include allowing employees to telecommute from satellite offices throughout the state, said the governor's spokeswoman, Caitlin Kelleher.

The Florida attorney general's office started offering four-day workweeks to about 500 employees last month, 100 of whom have joined the summertime program. The South Carolina Department of Transportation also introduced a summer pilot program June 16, and about 11 percent of the department's employees have enrolled.

Vermont state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi (R) proposed on June 17 shifting state government and public schools to a shortened workweek. Delaware lawmakers considered a four-day workweek bill this session, but it died in committee, and three West Virginia lawmakers sponsored a resolution to study shortened workweeks for government employees.

 
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