More Workers Telecommuting, Seeking Closer Jobs

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As gas prices hover around $4 a gallon, surveys show that more companies are making changes to help commuters cope. That includes more telecommuting and even condensing the work week from five days to four days of 10 hours each. Workers and employers are trying to cut fuel costs but still remain relevant in their workplaces.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. And we're not working from home, but many people are these days. The reason is soaring gas prices. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on the adjustment some people are trying to make.

FRANK LANGFITT: Riz Kalik(ph) didn't like his commute to begin with. Some days, he spent two hours inching along in his minivan to an office in suburban Washington, D.C.

Mr. RIZ KALIK: Even if I left at 5:00 in the morning, sometimes there would be congestion.

LANGFITT: But when gas prices spiked a few months ago, that drive became even harder to justify.

Mr. KALIK: The cost has just gone astronomical. You're talking about nearly doubling. Now it's close to 65 to $70 to fill a minivan.

LANGFITT: So Kalik asked his boss at IBM if he could work from home five days a week. Now he works barefoot, from his study in northern Virginia.

Unidentified Man: I wonder, Eli, when we hear from…

LANGFITT: With Bloomberg's financial news to keep him company, he talks to colleagues around the globe…

Mr. KALIK: Andy, are you there?

LANGFITT: …going over marketing strategies. With instant messaging and a phone, Kalik says he doesn't need to commute or work a conventional day.

Mr. KALIK: As long as I get what I need to get done, they really couldn't care if I'm doing it at 2:00 in the morning or 2:00 in the afternoon.

LANGFITT: IBM has been at the forefront of telecommuting for years, but other employers are now making similar changes to help workers cope with fuel costs. A survey by the staffing firm Challenger Gray & Christmas found nearly one-quarter of employers are offering a condensed work week to reduce commuting costs.

Local governments in Oakland County, Michigan and Birmingham, Alabama are letting some workers trade the traditional five-day week for four days at 10 hours each.

Linda Branch(ph) does payroll for an oil-equipment company in east Texas. She wants that kind of deal. Recently, she asked her boss…

Ms. LINDA BRANCH: What do you think about going to a four-day work week, I said, because the price of gas is killing me. And that way, that will save me 80 to 100 miles that one day.

LANGFITT: Branch says starting pay for a job like hers is as little as 10 bucks an hour. So at $4 a gallon, gas takes a huge toll.

Ms. BRANCH: With the economy the way it is and food prices going up, it's either like do you get gas, or do you eat?

LANGFITT: Branch says her boss likes the idea of a four-day work week. She's waiting to hear back.

Cindy Williams(ph) lives in Florida and owns a company that handles environmental insurance claims. She thought about a four-day work week and decided against it. Williams says her company's work is so complicated, it's hard to do it for more than eight hours at a stretch.

Ms. CINDY WILLIAMS (Owner, Environmental Insurance Claims Business): The longer the day goes, we think that people tend to start wandering around a little bit. You know, they don't seem as focused on what they're doing. And a lot of the claims that they're working on are technical and require a lot of thinking to complete them.

LANGFITT: Instead, Williams will allow employees to telecommute at least one day a week. She has no choice.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I actually have had other employees that say they're going to start looking closer to home, and I can't afford to lose them.

LANGFITT: Robert Half International, a staffing firm, found in a recent survey that nearly one-third of workers were looking for a new job closer to home. That's what Paula Luft(ph) did. Luft is an accountant and temp worker who lives outside Chicago. When she considered a new job recently, the commute was crucial.

Ms. PAULA LUFT (Accountant, Temp Worker): One job they wanted to send me, I think it was like 35 or 40 miles.

LANGFITT: She rejected it because of the fuel costs.

Ms. LUFT: Not only are you commuting for an hour, you're paying - one of your hour wages is going to the gas. To me, that would be ridiculous.

LANGFITT: Luft looked at other jobs. She finally took the one closest to home. And in the age of killer gas prices, she's found the ultimate solution: She rides her bike to work.

Ms. LUFT: I love it. I think it's wonderful. You know, I'm old. I remember when gas was $.30 a gallon. We used to dig in our purse at the bottom for pennies to put gas in our cars. That's when pennies meant something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANGFITT: Not anymore. Now she'd have to dig for more than 400 pennies to buy a gallon of gas. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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