A top Capitol Hill Democrat says federal employees should condense their workweek as part of a plan to help workers cope with skyrocketing gasoline prices.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, wants federal agencies to give as many employees as possible the option of working a four-day, 40-hour week. The plan would help workers save money on gasoline and reduce traffic on the capital area's notoriously congested roadways.
Also, with fewer federal workers in the office on any given day, agencies could lower their cooling, heating and lighting costs, Mr. Hoyer said.
"It seemed to me to make a lot of sense," Mr. Hoyer told reporters last week. "I'm hopeful that we can pursue this, because I don't see any downside to it at all."
The proposal wouldn't be mandatory but would have a target of at least 20 percent employee participation. Some federal agencies already allow some employees to work shortened schedules.
However, Mr. Hoyer has asked the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to conduct a comprehensive agency-by-agency study on the feasibility of expanding the use of four-day, 40-hour workweeks.
"The federal government should do all it can to ensure that federal agencies and departments are appropriately reducing gasoline consumption," Mr. Hoyer said in a letter to OPM in August. "This goal can be accomplished with the adoption of personnel policies to limit unnecessary commuting."
OPM Acting Director Michael Hager initially rejected Mr. Hoyer's proposal, saying a four-day workweek would be "extremely difficult" for some services, such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and defense and intelligence operations.
He added that a scheduled 10-hour workday could make it harder to recruit and retain employees, particularly among workers with young children.
"We strongly believe the current system is effective and is already helping federal employees reduce fuel consumption," Mr. Hager said in an Aug. 29 letter to Mr. Hoyer.
However, last week, Mr. Hager appeared to soften his position, telling a group of reporters that he shared Mr. Hoyer's goal of ensuring more flexibility for federal workers.
"I don't know where this thing came a bit unraveled," Mr. Hager said, as reported in GovernmentExecutive.com on Sept. 18. "I don't think we're that far apart."
Mr. Hoyer sent Mr. Hager a follow-up letter dated Sept. 12, asking the OPM chief to reconsider his plan. "Unfortunately, your response misconstrued the spirt of my proposal," Mr. Hoyer wrote.
An OPM spokesman said he couldn't comment on the letter because Mr. Hager had not yet received it.
The trend of shorter workweeks has been spreading, as about one-sixth of U.S. cities allow at least some full-time municipal employees to work a four-day schedule.
Also, a recent study conducted by Utah's Brigham Young University showed that flexible work schedules lead to higher levels of employee productivity, lower levels of absenteeism and greater levels of employee satisfaction.
"Lots of private firms and governments around the country have been exploring the idea," said BYU professor Rex Facer, who conducted the study. "It's getting people to think, 'Are we doing business in the best possible way so that it's beneficial to employees but also beneficial to the clients and customers we serve?' And it really has to be asking both of those questions at the same time."
In most cases, the four-day workweek is optional, and administrative offices remain open on a traditional Monday-through-Friday schedule.
However, Utah this summer instituted a mandatory Monday-through-Thursday work schedule for most state employees. The state says the switch is expected to shave about 20 percent off its energy costs.