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Gas prices drive workers - and bosses - to telecommute

  • Story Highlights
  • Rising gas prices pushing workers, bosses to explore telecommuting
  • Average price hit record high of $3.18 in May, according to Lundberg Survey
  • Virginia nonprofit may get $35,000 incentive for forcing workers to telework
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(CNN) -- Irritated by the highest gas prices in U.S. history, John Thorner has a message for his 70 employees: Stay home.

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Rising gas prices topped the $4 per gallon mark in some U.S. cities this summer.

Thorner is requiring all staff at the National Recreation and Park Association to avoid commuting at least one day a week -- either by working four long days and taking the fifth one off, or by working from home on the fifth day.

"The 70 people in our office drive an average of 30 miles a day. We did the math and figured that by having the employees not commute one day a week, we would be saving 100 gallons a week," says Thorner, executive director of the nonprofit, which is based in the suburbs of Washington.

"This is not a huge amount of gasoline, but it could serve as a model for other operations."

When the average price of gasoline in the United States hit $3.18 in May, it was the highest price ever recorded, even when adjusted for inflation, according to the Lundberg Survey of thousands of service stations across the nation.

Those record prices helped push more than a few employees to find alternative ways of working, according to Rose Stanley of WorldAtWork, an association for human resource professionals based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Stanley knows about this firsthand. Having arranged to work at home one day a week for the past year, she budgeted $50 for commuting the other four days. "But it was costing me $75 a week."

So six weeks ago, she says, she asked if she could work at home a second day each week. "I'm back down to within my budget."

Employers, too, are talking more about telecommuting, says Jennifer Pickett of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

"Just in the past week or so, we've heard from employers who specifically mentioned gas prices as a reason for their considering a telework program to offset the cost of commuting for their employees," says Pickett, whose department runs Telework!VA, a program that provides incentives for businesses in the state to encourage their employees to work at home.

While there's no data available on whether teleworking has increased as a result of rising gas prices, the anecdotal evidence is accumulating:

• "I've been having people calling me asking, 'How do I get my boss to let me work at home? I can't afford to drive to work anymore,' " says Chuck Wilsker, president of The Telework Coalition, an advocacy organization.

• "We're seeing a dramatic increase in the use of the services we offer just in the past 30 days, after the gas prices reached $3," says Michael Halicki of the Clean Air Campaign of Georgia, which provides incentives to individuals to stop commuting alone in their cars. "I can't document that there's been an increase in teleworking, but we have seen a definite increase in interest in it by employers."

• "Rising gas prices are definitely making people at least talk more about working at home," agrees Erik Nelson of Better World Club, which bills itself as an environmentally friendly auto club.

Even if few employers are likely to mimic Thorner and force their workers to stay home, the nonprofit director is unapologetic: "It's an economic issue for our employees. It's also an environmental one for us as an organization. Conservation is part of our mission."

Much to his surprise, it turns out to be an economic issue for his organization as well. After an article about his plan was published in The Washington Post, Thorner learned that his organization may be eligible for financial incentives for its model behavior.

"When gas prices go up, it makes people more conscious of how expensive it is to commute," says Lonnie Golden, a labor economist at Penn State Abington who researches flexible work arrangements. "And more employers might consider accommodating those employees who wish to reduce commuting time.

"It's encouraging to think that something good will come out of rising gas prices." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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