States Shift Work Schedules to Save Energy

July 9, 2008

On June 26, 2008, Utah governor Jon Huntsman announced that state agencies will move to a four-day workweek (10 hours/day, with mandatory three-day weekends) in order to save energy, reduce vehicle miles traveled in the state, and address climate change and air pollution. For the next year at least, state offices will be open (and public employees will be on the job) Mon-Thurs from 7am to 6pm, and closed Fridays. Exempted from this program are essential services (highway patrols, courts, public schools and colleges, etc.).

Utah is definitely not the only state to experiment with shifting public employee work schedules and options in order to save energy, meet environmental goals, and cut costs. On June 30, Stateline.org reported that:

  • MI is considering work-schedule alternatives to help commuters save fuel, and a third of the state's workforce would like to participate.
  • NM: By Sept. 1, each state agency must adopt a policy for telework, job sharing, and alternate work schedules.
  • KY and SC: High gasoline prices led these states to offer compressed workweeks to a handful of state employees this summer.
  • AR, OK, WV and VT, among other states, are considering expanding existing alternate work schedule programs to more state agencies.
  • Elsewhere: "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."

...But so far, Utah is the only state to implement a compressed workweek statewide and shut down state offices on Friday.

Alternate work schedules and strategies (such as satellite offices and telecommuting) are popular for many workers, not just public employees. However, they also are controversial — especially when they are mandated, rather than optional. While reduced commuting can help employees save money at the gas pump, it also can complicate lives (especially concerning child/eldercare), sleep schedules, and business operations or service provision (through confusion and miscommunication, especially during initial transitions to alternate work options). So while these programs almost always provide dollar and energy savings, they can also incur costs (stress and other costs associated with lifestyle changes and confusion).

Are state or local governments or agencies (or public institutions) in your area offering or mandating alternate work arrangements? Or are they considering such measures? What are their financial, energy, environmental, and other rationales? And most importantly, what are the results and how are they being measured?

Here are some starting points and tips for following this story:

  • Public employee unions/associations: Most states have one. Sometimes this is an umbrella group for all public employees (state, local, county); other times it covers specific agencies.
  • Government/agency human resources departments. This is generally where you'll get the most current statistics for how many employees are participating, and in what ways.
  • Backgrounder on flexible work options.
  • Managers of public facilities and fleets.

Angles to check out:

  • Complementary programs? In addition to changing work schedules, are government agencies or public institutions also offering options such as van pools or carpooling, daycare provision or reimbursement, public transit passes, etc.?
  • Use consistent units. When discussing a program that affects employees doing lots of different kinds of work in buildings, vehicles, and in the field, all kinds of energy sources will be involved. To see the big picture, it helps to translate all savings from electricity, natural gas, diesel, gasoline, and other types of energy into MBtu. Conversion tables like this one can help.
  • Compare to corporate and nonprofit efforts.
  • Local companies and nonprofits (such as nursing homes, food pantries, homeless shelters, disability services) often coordinate closely with public agencies. What's their take on the community impact of flexible work options?
  • The Society for Human Resources Management studies flexible work options closely and can provide broad context and specific examples. Press: Julie Malveaux, 703-535-6273; Jeanene Harris, 703-535-6356; and Jennifer Hughes, 703-535-6072.
  • Workforce.com (the web site of Workforce Management Magazine) offers ongoing, detailed coverage of flexible work options. It's worth exploring their archives for leads and contacts. Recent article of note: "Gas Price Crisis Could Revolutionize U.S. Workplace."