The Monitor's View

Help workers lower gas costs

Employee benefits like flex-time and showers for cyclists can save gas – and more.

At last, high gas prices are forcing more creative solutions. Take the city of Birmingham in Alabama. Squeezed by fuel costs and unable to grant raises, it has offered employees a four-day workweek. Why are workers jumping at it? They, too, save – in gasoline for commuting.

Birmingham is just one of many cities, counties, and states turning to "flex-time" to help employees cope with $4-a-gallon gas. It's not a new concept, but if public and private employers made adjustable schedules more widely available – along with telecommuting, mass-transit benefits, and bike facilities – the payoff would go far beyond fuel-cost relief.

If spread more widely, these tools will also reduce carbon gases, change management's focus from hours worked to productivity, and result in more satisfied employees.

Recommended: 10 great books about cycling

About 75 percent of workers in America commute alone in their cars, according to a 2004 Census report. No wonder commuters are looking to their employers to help them save on gas.

That's not management's traditional role, but companies and government offices that move in this direction will find they benefit, too:

Flex-time. Stressed public transit systems and stressed commuters are eager for nontraditional work hours to help ease the rush-hour crush and reduce car commuting.

That can also save employers money – about $3 million, in the case of Utah. In August, Utah becomes the first state in the nation to have many government offices go dark on Fridays, while about 17,000 state employees switch to 7 a.m. -6 p.m. hours, Monday-Thursday.

The downside is restricted services to taxpayers, thrown-off child-care schedules, and jobs that don't lend themselves to the new hours. That's why Utah is wisely proceeding with caution, exempting some jobs (such as law enforcement).

Telecommuting. Worklife experts keep predicting this is the way of the future. The future is now. This year, 9.6 percent of employees in America are working from home or offsite at least one day a week, up substantially from 4 percent last year, according to Kenexa Research, an employee research firm in Minneapolis.

Working remotely via the Internet isn't for every business, but too many employers resist it for fear they can't oversee their staff's work. They can fix that by setting agreed-on goals and requiring regular office visits.

Studies show, meanwhile, that telecommuters are more satisfied than their cubicle counterparts, which translates into higher loyalty to an employer.

Commuter benefits. The federal government allows spending pre-tax dollars for mass transit and vanpooling costs and also allows employers to deduct employer-paid commuter passes as business expenses. Meanwhile, online sites like eRideShare.com link commuters, but large employers can also help organize car- and vanpools.

Bike facilities. Employers can encourage this completely carbon-free transit by providing covered, secure bike racks and a place to change clothes and clean up. Too costly to do alone? In mid-May, Allina Hospitals joined with the city of Minneapolis to open a bike center with pay showers, lockers, a cafe, and bike store.

A third of the 150 commuter slots are already rented.

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