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U.S. Cities Try 4-Day Workweek to Save Energy

  • Erika Celeste

Many Americans are looking for new ways to save money, due to the rising price of gas. With nine out of ten Americans driving to their jobs — about three-quarters of them alone in the car — and many more on the road for work, one solution gaining popularity is the four-day workweek. Erika Celeste examines how the policy is working in the southeastern city of Birmingham, Alabama.

Birmingham, Alabama, city employees did not get their usual four percent cost of living raise this year. Instead, they got something that nearly everyone thinks is better: a four-day work week.

The new policy began July 1, and Carolyn Turner, who's worked for the city for eight years, says she can already see an improvement in her office. "Most everybody I run into in the mornings when I'm coming in, they love it. They're happy, energetic, enthused. We just see a difference in the employees' attitudes."

She admits the enthusiasm could be simply because the policy is new and exciting, but, she insists, "everybody just seems so refreshed."

A switch from the 9 to 5 routine

Traditionally, American businesses operate five days a week, 8 hours a day. But the idea of a longer workday and a shorter workweek to save fuel and money is gaining popularity with city and state governments across the country.

In Wisconsin, road crews are putting in fewer days a week… 80 percent of Utah's state employees will go on a four-day schedule in August… and lawmakers in Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho and New Mexico are considering legislation to move government workers to a four-day workweek.

However, unlike a similar plan in Avondale, Arizona, in which the City Hall is now closed on Fridays, Birmingham's city offices will remain open all week. Participation in the four-day plan is optional, and most departments, with the exceptions of police and fire, have opted to stagger their schedules.

Deborah Vance, Mayor Larry Langford's chief of staff, explains, "We asked them to look towards Mondays and Fridays to take off, but we have some situations where people are taking off Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays." She stresses that the mayor is not shutting down city business just to do this.

In fact, Carolyn Turner notes that having two more hours during her workday means she's able to provide extended service before and after regular business hours. "When I'm driving in, in the morning, the traffic is not as bad, so that's a really good thing." The easier commute helps her save on gas.

"Even when I come into work at 7, there's not a whole lot of people here and the phones are not just constantly ringing." Turner says that gives her more time to do paperwork.

And she says working a little longer doesn't bother her when she knows she'll have an extra day off. She's now off on Mondays, which gives her a chance to take care of personal chores and relax around the house.

Flexible schedule benefits more than the commuters

While the abbreviated workweek helps city employees save on gas, Deborah Vance says it has an even larger impact on the municipal government. "A large part of our fuel savings comes from the public works department," she explains, pointing out that more than a quarter of the city's gasoline is used by its fleet of trucks and cars. "We will realize by the end of the year a direct savings in fuel." That savings is currently estimated at one million dollars.

And Vance says there are also environmental savings. "In a place like Birmingham where there is no mass transit, coming up with a solution to get more cars off the road and less emissions, [is] better for the entire region."

And, says Mayor Langford, there are social benefits, especially for a city like Birmingham, which is wrestling with high crime. "I now have mamas and daddies back in their homes to spend time with their own children," he says happily, explaining that he hopes that has an impact on crime as well as saving money. "The more mamas and daddies I can have at home, acting like mamas and daddies, I don't have to hire a cop."

Growing trend in private sector

According to a May survey from the Society of Human Resource Management, one quarter of American businesses are also offering flexible schedules to help workers offset the cost of fuel.

Larry Langford isn't surprised. He notes that the problem is not unique to Birmingham or the state of Alabama. "Throughout the world, we have abused what God has given us to the point that nature's now fighting back. We don't get the message that you can't keep taking, taking, taking, until you reach a point where the whole system, earth itself is going to rebel against us." He says there is still a chance to reverse the process, "but we've got to get real serious about it."

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