A shift in the workweek

The Baltimore Sun

Beth Vessey lives 36 miles from her Howard County government job in Ellicott City. And although her Toyota Camry gets a healthy 29 miles to the gallon, commuting four days a week instead of five sounds appealing.

"It would save me a lot of money," said Vessey, who lives near Westminster. "It seems like it might be a good idea."

Vessey, who has worked in the Howard County communications office for 20 years, took notice when County Executive Ken Ulman announced last week that alternative work schedules will be available for some county employees. The plan, intended to conserve energy, includes compressed workweeks, such as a four-day week of 10-hour days, and flextime arrangements. Ulman said he is also considering permitting some workers to telecommute.

"It's the right time to encourage people to really be flexible," Ulman said.

Though not a new concept, the alternative work schedule is gaining new interest in Maryland and beyond against the backdrop of high gas and energy prices. Next month, Utah will switch to a four-day workweek for about 17,000 state employees, with most administrative offices closed on Fridays.

The American Red Cross of Central Maryland began offering compressed schedules to office workers July 1.

"With the price of gas, everybody's hurting," said spokeswoman Linnea Anderson.

Other county governments in the region already have policies, and a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the idea is under consideration for state employees.

"It appears this is more than a fad," said Anirban Basu, chairman of Sage Policy Group Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Baltimore. "It's spreading like wildfire across the country."

Though Ulman said the policy would not hamper performance, some consumers of county services are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Robert W. Wood Jr., owner of Wood Builders Collaborative, a renovation contracting company based in Woodstock, said he has been assured that the new four-day week will not adversely affect his business with county offices. But he said he has doubts.

"If I need to apply for permits and the office is open, I can do what I need to do," he said. "If I call for an inspection and the inspector is not available, I'd have to wait three days. That will stretch out the production schedule, which will affect the customer.

"I've lived long enough to know that the expected impact and the real impact are different."

Various federal agencies have offered alternative work-schedule arrangements for years, and with more public-sector employers making the move, pressure is likely to build for private businesses to follow suit or risk losing out in recruiting workers, Basu said.

In December, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management reported to Congress that 110,592 of about 1.8 million federal employees worked from home at least one day per month in 2006.

"Clearly, it does have a value as an energy saver," said Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the agency.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has 250,000 members, said allowing workers to build credit hours can help them avoid burnout with continuous 10-hour workdays. Some employees at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn work extra hours and bank them for use at other times, he said.

Montgomery, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties offer various flexible scheduling options to employees, though officials say they haven't promoted them across the work force.

In Baltimore County, about 1,000 out of 7,900 workers take advantage of a flexible work-schedule policy, including the compressed workweek, said Theresa Hill, director of human resources.

Montgomery County workers have had the option for eight years, but spokesman Patrick Lacefield said the government doesn't keep track of how many workers use it.

In Anne Arundel, the county discourages the use of the policy, said Dennis Callahan, the county's chief administrative officer.

"We don't encourage it," he said. "We're comfortable where we are."

Harford and Carroll counties are considering a program similar to Howard's, officials said.

"It could be beneficial for both our employees and citizens," said Scott Gibson, Harford's human resources director.

Carroll's chief administrative officer, Steven D. Powell, said highway workers in the county, as in Howard County, already work 10-hour days in warm weather. The issue for him is whether extending that to other county workers would save money while maintaining public services.

In Howard, the new schedules are set to begin immediately and apply to about 1,400 of the county's approximately 2,600 workers. Department leaders are being directed to encourage their employees to consider working four 10-hour days - or a two-week period of eight nine-hour days and one eight-hour day - to cut back on commuting.

Flextime arrangements that allow commuting during off-peak traffic periods also will be encouraged.

Public safety workers and school employees must work certain shifts, but office workers can be more flexible, officials said.

Vessey, the communications office worker, said that her round-trip commute exceeds an hour and that she fills her gas tank twice a week. She wouldn't mind working a longer workday.

"I stay a little late sometimes" already, she said.

For Roger Hawksworth, a utilities bureau worker and vice president of Local 3085 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Ulman's move is aligned with his own long-held beliefs.

"I've been trying for 14 years to convince the Bureau of Utilities to do this," he said. "I'm very pleased on a personal basis."


Sun reporter John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.

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