‘Green benefits’ give companies and employees a break at the pump

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Christina Couch

For employees at the Charlottesville-based construction firm Piedmont Plaster and Drywall, this summer was a little greener than usual. Thanks to new company policy, PP&D’s 35 employees switched from working five, eight-hour days a week to four, 10-hour days in hopes of reducing workers’ commuting costs and aiding the company’s bottom line.

“We were looking for something that could help the employees and the company with their gas expenses and at the same time, give them a break,” says PP&D President Chris Shifflett.  “Based on an average commute for the employees, the savings could amount to around $50 a month if you’re looking at over a $3 a gallon gas rate.”

That means an average employee could save about $400 during the company’s four-day season, which lasts from mid-March through early November. (The company will switch to a five-day schedule during the winter because of limited daylight hours.) On top of that, Shifflett says PP&D saves $800 to $1,000 each month by taking the company’s 12 construction vehicles off the road an extra day each week.

PP&D is one of a handful of companies throughout the state looking to ease sticker shock at the pump.  This summer, when gas prices reached over $4 per gallon, many Virginia employers, including Virginia Beach Public Schools and Roanoke-based insurance broker Chas. Lunsford Sons and Associates, experimented with compressed work weeks, while others, such as the University of Richmond, provided free public transportation vouchers to workers.

“With the cost of gas, employees are asking their bosses, ‘What can you do?’” says Debbie Schebe, director of strategic alliances for Creative, an Ashland-based consulting firm that specializes in helping companies optimize work environments.  “We’re seeing more companies adopting telework and more offering flexible schedules to reduce those transportation costs. It’s not just to be green, and it’s not just to reduce costs, and it’s not just to make their staff employees happy by providing another option; it truly is a
combination of the three.”

Studies suggest that lowering employees’ energy costs is more than just an altruistic perk — it’s a key incentive to attract and retain top-quality talent. A study by the staffing firm Robert Half International shows that 44 percent of workers believe higher gas prices have affected how and when they commute. 

Among that population, one in every three is considering trading in his or her current position for a job closer to home. Additionally, a survey by executive outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas shows that one out of every three companies nationwide has had viable candidates turn down job offers because of lengthy commutes. 

Many employers concur that offering green benefits is important, yet few agree on the best way to make that happen. Companies that pony up for bus or rail vouchers can appeal only to workers who live near available routes.  While that may work for firms located downtown or in metropolitan areas, it makes only a modest difference to organizations located in or near suburbs, says Carl Sorensen, associate vice president of human resources for the University of Richmond. UR offers free bus passes for all of its 1,500 employees, but only about 8 percent take advantage of the program, which costs the university $5,000 each month. “Folks either don’t live on a bus line or near an express line and that can turn a 20-minute car ride into an hour long bus ride,” Sorensen says. “That just doesn’t make sense. The infrastructure’s just not there to get people here quickly.”

Rather than helping employees get to work, some Virginia companies are reducing energy costs by keeping them out of the office with flexible schedules or compressed workweeks.  These programs come with their own set of problems, especially when it comes to making a four-day-per-week company work within a five-day-per-week world. A study by Brigham Young University shows that employees on a four-day schedule show higher productivity and job satisfaction levels than their five-day counterparts. But making a compressed schedule work is undeniably difficult to coordinate with child and elder care for employees, as well as with employer suppliers, distributors and contractors.

Bethanne Bradshaw, public information officer for Suffolk City Schools, one of several school districts that considered but did not opt for a four-day week, says the economic troubles that come with coordinating child care with five-day work schedules outweigh any potential savings. “We would be reducing fuel costs by 20 percent, so that’s a savings,” she reports. “However, it would impact bus driver contracts because they would be working one less day, and we already have a critical shortage [of drivers]. It would also impact contracts for cafeteria workers, our sports programs since we compete against other Chesapeake [Bay area] schools, and our regional vocational programs … Most of the
parents I’ve talked to are like, ‘Oh my God, don’t do it.’ ”

To make the four-day week work seamlessly, everyone — school systems, government offices, and private companies — has to either jump on board simultaneously or adopt a schedule like Chas. Lunsford Sons and Associates. The Roanoke firm allows employees to rotate which days they take off. The company started its new schedule in July, and about 50 of the company’s 65 full-time employees switched their schedules. “It’s made us more productive because people who work from 7:30 to 5:45 [as opposed to the regular 8:30 to 5 schedule] get a lot of work done before our offices open,” says company President Roy E. Bucher Jr. He plans to extend the program through this fall. “It’s been fantastic. I’ll walk through different offices, and I’ll say ‘How do you like the four-day work week?’ and I get the thumbs up.”

Other Virginia companies prefer that employees work remotely. Parents who clock into a virtual office can still save on transportation without rearranging child or elder care.  There’s fiscal encouragement for employers to take the telecommuting approach as well. For instance, Virginia is offering up to a $35,000 reimbursement for companies starting telework programs in the Northern Virginia, greater Richmond and Hampton Roads areas.

Telecommuting programs do come with upfront technology costs — typically up to $1,500 per remote worker, according to Telework!VA, a program administered through the state’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

Numbers on how many private Virginia companies are adopting environmentally conscious benefits are hard to come by, but Schebe says gas prices have reached a critical level.  With the cost of commuting to the office so high, employees are bent on limiting their commute — and employers are soon to follow. “It’s something that’s of great concern to businesses locally, and we don’t see that changing,” Schebe says. “It’s a trend that has to continue.” 

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