Arundel government offers flex work hours

Newly announced scheduling program can help employees save on fuel costs, Owens says

October 16, 2005|By KATRINA ALTERSITZ AND ELIZABETH COE | KATRINA ALTERSITZ AND ELIZABETH COE,CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE

ANNAPOLIS -- While typical Baltimore-area workers see their 2005 raises going straight into their gas tanks, government employees in nearby Anne Arundel County will be given the chance to cut their commute by 20 percent.

With gas costing an average of $2.86 per gallon in Baltimore -- an increase of about 50 percent from last October -- Baltimore-area workers pump an average of 3.7 percent of their $41,797 annual salary into their gas tanks, according to compensation experts at Salary.com. This amounts to $1,546, or about the amount the average Baltimore-area worker got in a raise this year.

Government workers in Anne Arundel will now have the opportunity to hang on to more of their raises under a program announced Thursday by County Executive Janet S. Owens. As many as 1,800 Anne Arundel workers will be able to choose one of three alternative work schedules -- such as working four 10-hour days per week -- to save money on fuel.

"What really catapulted this was [Hurricane] Katrina and escalating gas prices," Owens said. "I'm very excited about trying this because I think it's a win-win" for taxpayers and county employees.

This would help to cut commuting in the county by 20 percent, meaning fewer cars on the road, less congestion and better air quality, said Mark Atkisson, personnel officer for the county who implemented a pilot program in his office years ago.

His benefits analyst, Dennis Buckley, recently switched to the four 10-hour days.

The 20 percent cut in his daily commute -- 140 miles round-trip from Frederick to Annapolis -- saves him at least five gallons a week in gas.

"If it works for the organization and the individual, it is certainly a win-win," Buckley said. But he noted that in his office, a minority of his co-workers have taken advantage of a pilot program that has been available for years.

For most residents in the Baltimore area, however, there is no alternative work schedule available, and the daily commute can be costly.

"I try not to think about it too much," said Baltimore resident Chris Herlihy. "I have to go to work, and I need gas, so there isn't much I can do."

Herlihy said he uses a Citibank card, which allows him to save 5 percent on every gas purchase, but the 70-mile commute each day from Baltimore to College Park and back is still expensive.

Even in his Mazda, which gets relatively good fuel economy, Herlihy said he wishes he could work from home and avoid the commute.

According to the study by Salary.com, Baltimore workers spend the 16th highest percentage of their salaries on gas when compared with 87 other metropolitan areas.

Baltimore-area workers make an average daily commute of 19.3 miles, or 29 minutes, according to the U.S. Census and the 2004 Urban Mobility Study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which supplied data for the study completed by Salary.com.

Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at Salary.com, said the organization realized the need for the study when customers began asking whether gas prices were being factored into the Web site's salary reports.

"People were complaining that they were spending too much money on gas," he said. "They were looking for help with how to deal with the issue, and we noticed that the increase in gas price was approaching the typical amount of the raise."

The more important question, he said, is what happens to the people who have lower-than-average incomes and pay higher-than-average gas prices.

"When you start looking at people at lower-wage jobs, this is a big chunk of their paycheck," he said. "It can be hugely devastating to people living paycheck to paycheck."

Towson resident Charles Calabrese said he recently switched jobs specifically to save money on gas.

"To some extent it is our own fault," he said. "No one is forcing us to drive. Gas is just an associated cost. We could all work closer to home or not drive to work at all."

Anne Arundel County hopes that by allowing its workers a more flexible option, it will also increase office output and will prevent them from following in the footsteps of Calabrese.

"Predominantly it was to help the employee not have to commute as much," said Atkisson. But, "not only does it provide the employee with a great benefit, it provides us with increased productivity and morale."

Katrina Altersitz and Elizabeth Coe write for the Capital News Service.

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