Companies find job-sharing can be a two-way benefit

Ninth-floor executives of the Shawmut Bank are not dismayed when receptionist Nancy Titilah leaves 22 ringing phones at 1 p.m. and goes home. They know that Joan O'Connell, who shares the job with Mrs. Titilah, is there to take over.

Mrs. Titilah and Mrs. O'Connell are two of a growing number of people who share one job and salary. Although there are no national figures that track the number of people sharing jobs, observers involved in job-sharing say the numbers are increasing.

Job sharing has been viewed by some as socially useful, a way to keep certain employees happy, such as mothers who want more time for raising children or going to school. But job sharing can also save a company a lot of money, and in a recession the idea has become more appealing to employers.

Some companies wanting to ride out turbulent economic times without having to jettison employees have started job-sharing programs. Pan American World Airways , faced with significant layoffs, started such a program for its flight attendants in January. It already had an alternative work schedule program in place. The airline has saved 330 jobs and now 20 percent of the almost 5,000 flight attendants are members of the program, says Merle Richman, a spokesman for the airline. ''We wanted to save money,'' he explains.

Job sharing can also ease the budget after the hard times are over, observers say. Employees with split jobs can switch back to full time, eliminating much rehiring and training.

Increased productivity is another reason more businesses are accepting the job-sharing idea, says Robert Zager, vice-president of the Work in America Institute in Scarsdale, N.Y. The nonprofit organization was founded to advance productivity and the quality of work life.

''Two part-time people somehow add up to more than one person full time,'' Mr. Zager says. ''They seem to have more energy working part time.'' This is particularly true both for workers in tedious jobs and for overworked executives , he adds.

Another plus that businesses see in job sharing is reduced turnover. Nancy Murphy, Shawmut Bank's employment manager, says that many of the bank's 12 job-sharers have stayed with the same jobs since the program began over two years ago. One reason for their contentment is that they usually get to work out their own schedules, she says.

There are some extra costs involved for businesses that use job sharing, but these are not enough to offset its usefulness, says Barbara Ferguson, of Work Options Unlimited, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that promotes alternative work schedules.

''The only thing that will cost more is unemployment benefits and social security; they'll have to pay double on that,'' Mrs. Ferguson says. ''But the dollar cost is made up for by lower absenteeism and higher productivity.'' Other analysts add that money saved on recruiting and retraining workers also makes up for these new costs.

But job sharing does present logistical and bookkeeping problems, analysts admit. Not every employer is enthusiastic about having two secretaries. The confusion and inconvenience of double scheduling can make employers balk.

Figuring out how to pay benefits is another awkward point. Some employers, like Shawmut Bank, don't pay health benefits or vacation days, but job sharers are eligible for floating days off and can contribute to pension and thrift plans. Other companies prorate benefits. Still others, like Pan Am, give their teams full benefits, in exchange for three extra hours of work a month.

But sometimes it just doesn't work. ''We quit our job-sharing program for flight attendants last year,'' says Chuck Novak, a spokesman for United Airlines. ''It was too costly and not enough people took advantage of it.''

Despite the problems, analysts say job sharing is expanding. It was once limited to women in clerical jobs, but now financial analysts, managers, consultants, and personnel administrators are starting to join those who trade a smaller paycheck for more free time.

Men are starting to share their jobs, too. ''In the last year we've seen a big increase in men attending our free weekly information meetings,'' says Chuck Renfroe, public information coordinator of New Ways to Work, a work research organization in San Francisco. ''It's also attracting more men who want part-time jobs to spend more time with their children.''

Mrs. Ferguson says that with demographics showing fewer young employees entering the work force, job sharing will become even more important in the future. ''Already insurance companies are doing strategic planning for the next eight to 10 years. They figure with fewer people coming in, they're going to need better options to draw them in.''

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