- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The weekend comes a day early for most Utah state employees, thanks to a new, cost-saving four-day workweek that is garnering attention from other locales and younger employees eager to improve their quality of life.

The trend of shorter workweeks has been spreading in recent years, as about one-sixth of U.S. cities allow at least some full-time municipal employees to work a four-day schedule, said Rex Facer, a professor at Utah’s Brigham Young University who has researched the subject.

In most cases, however, the four-day workweek is optional, and administrative offices remain open on a traditional Monday-through-Friday schedule. Utah is the only state to make the Monday-through-Thursday work schedule compulsory.

Mr. Facer’s studies show flexible work schedules lead to higher levels of employee productivity, lower levels of absenteeism and greater levels of employee satisfaction.

The last significant push to a four-day workweek was during the 1970s, when a foreign oil embargo and rising fuel prices led employers to search for ways to cut energy costs, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research with the National Association of Counties.

“What’s different this time is a lot of people are starting to think about their quality of life, especially younger people … and they like the idea of having three-day weekends,” Ms. Byers said.

Mr. Facer agrees, saying most workers are willing to trade longer workdays for a three-day weekend because it enables them to better balance their work and personal lives.

But whether a mandatory four-day workweek will catch on nationwide is a long shot, as the schedule has received mixed reviews from the general public.

“Delivering public services are what governments are supposed to be all about, and so that means it creates a real challenge if you start changing the schedule,” Mr. Facer said. “So you … have to educate your citizens and help them see that you’re still offering the same amount of access - you’re just changing it so that hopefully it provides better access for citizens.”

Longer workdays also create problems for working parents, as day care facilities and schools typically close before their workday is done.

While four-day workweeks are popular with some cities, most county governments - which operate large law enforcement and judicial systems - have found the schedule too cumbersome to implement, Ms. Byers said.

“I think it’s a difficult thing for them to close the entire government” for a day, she said. “I don’t think it will be as practical as we’d like it to be for some people.

In Utah, however, the move to a four-day workweek so far has received favorable reviews.

“My gut feeling is this will work out OK,” Mr. Facer said last week. “I’m pretty sure we’ll have some modifications after we’ve done it for a year, but overall, the world hasn’t fallen apart in the past four days that we’ve been on this new schedule.”

Beginning last week, Utah turned off the lights, the heat and the air conditioning on Fridays in 1,000 state government buildings to save about $3 million annually, the office of Utah’s governor said. The state also will save on gasoline used by official vehicles, but authorities have not figured out how much.

Utah’s administrative offices are open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Administrative offices are closed Fridays, but essential public services that normally operate on extended hours and weekends, such as law enforcement, will remain unaffected.

The change will affect about 17,000 employees, or about 80 percent of the state government work force.

“As we go forward with this initiative, we will conserve energy, save money, improve our air quality and enhance customer service,” said Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, when he announced the program several weeks ago. “We live in a dynamic, ever-changing environment, and it’s crucial that we take a serious look at how we can adapt and maintain our state’s unparalleled quality of life.”

The governor said the program, which is expected to shave about 20 percent off the state’s energy costs, will be evaluated in one year to allow for any “necessary adjustments.”

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