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Gas prices encourage telecommuting

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.
Gasoline Cutting Commutes
Brent Cranfield telecommutes from his home on in Marietta, Ga., one day a week, saving 30 or 40 miles on his car once a week.Stanley Leary / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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!'"

Nationwide, 18 percent telecommute
The coalition estimates that more than 26 million Americans now telecommute at least some days, which would be about 18 percent 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.

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.

West Virginia weighs four-day week
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.

Three-day weekend: 'a wonderful incentive'
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 percent 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."