Four-Day Workweek Grows on Utahns

The U.S. Postal Service has suggested cutting one day of mail delivery a week. Now California is about to shut state offices every other Friday. In Utah, the nation's biggest experiment in shrinking the government workweek already is under way - with encouraging results.

Surprisingly, the pluses aren't exactly what Utah envisioned in August when Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr . started shutting down a third of state offices on Fridays - including driver's licenses bureaus - and ordered 17,000 of 24,000 executive-branch employees to work their full 40 hours over four days instead of five.

Energy savings and environmental benefits so far are less than envisioned, but other advantages could warrant a longer trial period for Huntsman's one-year "Working4Utah" program.

"There's been enough of a positive impact that I don't think we're going to go back to the five-day workweek," said Mike Hansen, strategic planning manager for the Utah's governor's office who is tracking the program.

Changes to the workweek increasingly are on the table nationwide in today's poor economic climate. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), facing the worst financial crisis of any governor, is about to close a slew of state offices every first and third Friday of the month. Unlike Utah, California plans to make 238,000 employees take those days off without pay to save money, exacting about a 9 percent pay cut.

Because of shrinking revenues, the postmaster general on Jan. 28 asked Congress to consider letting it reduce mail delivery to five days instead of six days a week. On March 2, Mesa, Ariz ., will become the latest municipality to switch its city hall to a Monday-through-Thursday, 10-hour-a-day week to try to save money, according to news reports.

States including New York, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia are looking at Utah's model as they seek ways to cut down expenses. Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, New York and South Carolina switched some state employees to shorter workweeks last year.

One impetus for Utah's shorter workweek last August was to soften the blow of $4-a-gallon gasoline on employees and state vehicle fleets. That benefit receded with gas now averaging $1.64 a gallon in Utah. Closing state offices on Fridays also appears to be saving less on utility bills than a projected $3 million a year - and only half as much reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions as expected, according to a preliminary report shared with Stateline.org.

But nearly six months into Utah's Friday-off experiment, employee satisfaction is shifting in a noticeable way, and the three-day weekend doubles as a recruitment tool, enticing younger residents to work for the state, Hansen said.

A November 2008 survey of state employees found that the four-day workweek was growing more popular with usage. After four months, 70 percent said they preferred the schedule, compared to 56 percent before the change. The report also found that absenteeism and turnover rates went down.

Despite some kinks in the program, Utah saved $203,177 on custodial contracts in 2008.

Another byproduct is a dose of economic stimulus. Much of the $6 million that state employees are expected to save in commuting costs will be spent on goods and services.

Fallout from Utahns who can't get access to some government services on Fridays has been less than expected, too. The number of phone calls to a consumer complaint hotline has diminished over time, from 25 calls on Aug. 8, for example, to two calls on Nov. 28, according to the interim report. And most calls weren't complaints but questions from people who forgot about the change or had unique situations. Hotline operators now recommend closing down the call center.

Some state and local government offices have offered four-day workweeks for years, with employees staggering their time off so offices can stay open. Utah is the first to close many of its state offices on Fridays while expanding service hours Monday through Thursday, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Its experiment is attracting inquiries from other states contemplating workplace changes to benefit the environment, personnel or the state's bottom line.

New York state Rep. Michael Gianaris (D) last month proposed trying Utah's four-day workweek in his state, estimating it could save $30 million a year and help close a $15 billion budget gap.

The West Virginia Legislature last month held hearings on whether to adopt a four-day workweek for state employees. Eight West Virginia state agencies and five county offices already have tested an optional four-day schedule, though employees staggered their schedules so offices didn't close.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) started a four-day workweek program in November for about 650 state employees, hoping to cut costs and save energy. So far, it's only a pilot program .

"Anecdotally we've heard there have been some energy savings and employee satisfaction is high," said Glen Kuper, spokesman for the state's Office of Financial Management. "Citizen opinions are also a high priority for this policy, and we will consider very heavily citizens' input."

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) on Jan. 12 announced energy-conservation legislation that includes a proposal to explore a four-day workweek for state employees.

Utah's Hansen still holds out hope of boosting energy savings. The one month of utility-usage data he's been able to analyze showed half of 101 buildings in the program achieving 10 percent to 20 percent energy-use reductions.

Hansen said more energy could be saved by teaching employees to turn off lights and computers when they leave the office. He learned it isn't feasible to completely shut down some offices. But installing fans or thermostats could help regulate the temperature on floors with computer equipment that has to be climate-controlled.

"This came as a surprise to us, and some agencies don't have money in their budgets to pay to regulate temperatures," Hansen said. "We still have some problems to work out."

Tags: Labor