June 15, 2008

Cutting the Cost of Commuting

By Emily C. Dooley, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

Jun. 15--Virginia Commonwealth University Health System is hoping a $1 million giveaway will help ease gas-pump pains for its 7,200 employees.

This week, the health system, which includes the sprawling VCU Medical Center in downtown Richmond, plans to give all employees a one-time payment of between $100 and $250 to help them deal with increased gas prices.

It is just one of a growing number of Richmond-area employers looking for ways to help their workers cope with increased commuting costs.

The amounts of the health system's giveaway vary, based on employee performance and tenure. Money for the program, budgeted at $1 million, will come from the health system's operating budget.

"It's just a small economic incentive," said Sharon Jahn, its benefits director.

The average price of regular gas on Friday in the Richmond/Petersburg area was $3.99. A year ago, according to AAA, it was $2.97.

Employers are taking note and trying to help, offering workers gas cards, special bonuses and shorter workweeks with longer days.

They also are paying for bus passes and helping arrange car pools.

Some are even trying out pilot telecommuting programs.

Lately, Robert Berlin has been starting his office hours earlier and working past his normal quitting time. And he's pretty psyched about it.

Berlin, a technology-project manager for Chesterfield County, is one of 15 employees in the information-systems department allowed to work from home for up to three days a week.

It's part of a six-month telework pilot program to see if employees can save gas and be friendly to the environment -- as well as be more productive.

"This works out really well for me, especially with the price of gas where it is," said Berlin, 56, who lives in Henrico County. "I'm saving about three gallons of gas a day. I also gain about an hour and a half every day that I telework."

. . .

Helping employees deal with steadily increasing gas prices is happening nationwide.

A May survey by the Society for Human Resource Management showed that 42 percent of employers are raising the mileage reimbursement rate for employees. That is up from 13 percent a year ago.

"Rising gas prices are cutting into everyone's personal budgets, so employers are taking a closer look at benefits," said Susan R. Meisinger, president and CEO of the human-resources organization. "[They] are offering extra help as a tool to retain employees and improve employee morale."

Dr. Marcel Lambrechts last week started paying his nine fulland part-time employees an extra $25 per month to help cover gas costs. The Sandston dentist had heard them talking about how gas prices were hitting their wallets and he wanted to help. He also didn't want to lose anyone.

"I'd really hate to think about them leaving me because of the gas," Lambrechts said.

Management at Brandermill Woods Retirement Community has given gas cards twice to all of its 235 employees since May. Full-timers got $20 cards, while part-timers received $10.

The gifts surprised Debra Smith, who works in housekeeping at the 60-bed nursing-care facility. Each $20 card covered half a tank of gas.

"It's very nice for a job to do something like that," Smith said. "It really did help me."

Human-resources coordinator Dorothy VanStavern said the company tries to be aware of what is affecting employees. "I think it's because we're in the nurturing business," she said.

. . .

Employers are dealing with the gas-price problem from a variety of angles.

Wyeth, which makes consumer health care products at a Henrico plant and has other local offices, is considering copying a "green wheels" program running at other company sites, spokesman Rob Norman said. Under that program, the company provides vans for employees to share rides to work for a weekly fee.

Stihl Inc., one of Virginia Beach's largest employers with about 2,000 workers, has encouraged car pooling through NuRide, which helps companies encourage car pooling with an Internet-based database and incentives.

Simon Nance, Stihl's manager of training and development in Virginia Beach, said he used the system to form a car pool with three fellow Stihl employees who live near him and work similar hours.

Dominion Virginia Power, Virginia's biggest electric utility, is encouraging its workers to consider working shorter weeks with longer days. The company will set up an internal Web site or newsletter aimed at encouraging and helping employees telecommute or carpool when they can, company spokesman Dan Genest said.

The University of Richmond is offering its 1,500 employees free commuter cards on GRTC Transit System buses. Soon after the program began in April, 97 people had signed up. As of Friday, the number was 145.

The city of Richmond and the state Department of Environmental Quality also are among employers offering GRTC cards, paying up to $115 per worker per month for the tax-free benefit.

Sarah Redding Wilson, the state government's personnel director, said some agencies may move to compressed workweeks -- an option that has been available in state government for at least a decade. In the meantime, Virginia is emphasizing existing programs, and studying new ones, that could control fuel costs for employees.

"I suspect there will be multiple ways to deal with this issue," said Greater Richmond Chamber President and Chief Executive James W. Dunn. "I think we're probably looking at something where one size doesn't fit all."

. . .

Experts caution that before employers offer a new benefit, they should take the consequences into consideration.

If a smaller workweek is offered, there has to be enough employees to cover the empty seats and a protocol to handle different responsibilities. Likewise, if telecommuting is the benefit, companies need the technical support staff, equipment and infrastructure to allow people to work from home, said Richard S. Coughlan, senior associate dean for graduate and executive programs at the University of Richmond's Robins School of Business.

"If it's not already set up culturally, then simply flipping the switch now because of gas prices is a recipe for failure," he said.

There also are places where work has to happen at work.

Chesterfield's General District and Circuit courts are too understaffed, and the work they do too essential, to allow employees to work from home, their clerks said.

"We're so significantly understaffed that we need every human body here every day," said Circuit Court Clerk Judy Worthington. "That would be a grand, grand thing to offer, but their job responsibilities are so varied and diverse that they have to be here to perform them."

Some departments within Hanover County's government also are considering allowing employees to work flexible hours, but officials are concerned about having enough bodies in the office to deal with the public. "We have to be able to have someone there to answer the phone, at a minimum," said Tom Harris, Hanover's public-information officer.

The same is said in the private sector.

Merrell Wreden, vice president of marketing for Hanover County-based AMF Bowling Centers Inc., said it's important that the company have people in the Hanover office to answer phones because the facility is the support center for more than 300 bowling centers nationwide. But they are looking into telecommuting and flex-hour schedules for employees.

At John Tyler Community College in Chester, four-day weeks, working from home and adding more Internet classes are all possibilities -- but those options will take time.

"The difficulty we face as a college is that our schedules are set pretty far in advance," said Holly Walker, public-relations specialist. "Trying to change that in midstream is virtually impossible."

Another change because of gas prices: What was once shunned is now being paid attention to.

Troutman Sanders, a Richmond law firm, is offering its staff an informational meeting with RideFinders, a nonprofit agency that promotes van pooling and alternative means of commuting.

The firm's human-resources department didn't get much response initially when it sent out a message in March, but that was before gas prices spiked, said Ted Fauls, managing partner of the firm's Richmond office.

"About three or four weeks ago, people starting saying, 'Remember that message you sent around about lowering [commuting] costs? We would be interested in that,'" Fauls said. Contact Emily C. Dooley at (804) 649-6016 or [email protected]

Times-Dispatch staff writers Peter Bacque, John Reid Blackwell, Mark Bowes, Greg Edwards, Bill Geroux, Wesley P. Hester, Will Jones, Karin Kapsidelis, Cynthia McMullen, Jeff E. Schapiro and Reed Williams contributed to this report.


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