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Are four-day weeks saving state agencies money?

Post by John Henrikson / The News Tribune on Nov. 28, 2008 at 10:24 am |
November 28, 2008 10:24 am

From Adam Wilson, state government reporter at our sister paper, The Olympian:

Having Friday off has become routine for workers at some state agencies, but it’s too soon to tell whether moving to a four-day workweek is saving money, the agencies report.

Leaving government offices empty on Fridays was supposed to save on energy costs, one of the early moves Gov. Chris Gregoire made as the state’s budget began to shrink. Washington now faces a $5.1 billion shortfall in funds.

"Things have been going smoothly and people are driving in to work one less day a week, which is an energy savings. But in terms of building energy use, we won’t know until December," said Wendy Pugnetti of the Department of Community Trade and Economic Development.

The agency’s Olympia headquarters switched to a shortened week Oct. 6.

Moving to four, 10-hour days was the most popular suggestion from state workers when Gregoire asked for cost-cutting ideas in August. More significant budget cuts, including a hiring freeze, have also been made. But the shortened week remains popular among workers.

"We received anecdotal evidence from employees that they think it is working well for them and their customers," said Glenn Kuper of the Office of Financial Management.

It could take up to six months to know whether the change in schedule results in lower energy bills, he added.

Meanwhile, the state’s budget problems keep mounting. The state expects to have $30.1 billion to spend over the next two years, $4.6 billion less than expected.

And the latest forecast shows the state falling $413 million short in the current budget cycle, which ends in June. On Tuesday, Gregoire ordered $260 million in additional cuts to address that gap.

Other states facing severe drops in tax income are eyeing state workers’ pay and work hours. In California, for example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed requiring all state employees to take one day off without pay each month — the equivalent of a 5 percent pay cut.

Budget writers in Washington have entertained similar ideas, but no plans have been made.

"Those things are on the table. We’re trying to be creative in the way we look at things. Having flexible work hours or shorter work hours might be a way to achieve some savings," Kuper said.

The largest state employees union has not had any requests to discuss work-hour changes, said Tim Welch of the Washington Federation of State Employees.

"Whatever proposals management has, we want them to come and talk to us about. Cutting hours is something they are obligated to come and talk to us about," he said, adding, "None of us should get our backs up against the wall."

Some information on energy-cost savings from the four-day week will be ready by mid-December, according to the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

Regardless of savings, the move to a 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday shift seems to have gone smoothly.

"We’re not getting a whole lot of feedback one way or the other from our customers," said Heidi Audette of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which uses the four-day week.

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