08/31/09 — Four-day week gets high marks in county

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Four-day week gets high marks in county

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 31, 2009 1:46 PM

Most Wayne County government offices are winding down the final month of a yearlong experiment in a four-day workweek that could end up saving the equivalent of almost a penny on the tax rate.

As of May, direct and indirect savings were estimated at roughly $315,000. The final tally won't be known until early October, when the county will have all of its utility bills through August.

County Manager Lee Smith expects the savings could grow to slightly more than $400,000 by then -- about $500,000 represents 1 cent on the county tax rate.

The experiment began last August and will continue through the coming year. At the same time, the county has implemented other cost-cutting measures including an idling policy for county-owned vehicles and routing changes for vehicles in the inspections department.

More recently, county employees are being encouraged to turn off lights when they leave a room for any period of time, and solar power is being eyed for the county jail.

It is a matter of changing the way the county does business, Smith said.

The county, he said, is working with Progress Energy to look at savings on equipment.

"I think this will only get better because we are looking at over at the jail a hot water system where we might actually use solar power," Smith said. "That could be a reduction of 70 to 80 percent of utilities in one building. For some buildings, that could be $4,000 or $5,000 a month and that could pay for itself in a matter of two years. That is a pretty good investment."

While Smith feels the four-day workweek has proven effective, there are no plans to change it this year. He does plan to update commissioners later in the year.

Phase II of the four-day workweek, adding the courthouse offices, was set aside earlier this year following a protest from the business community.

The concern was that closing the tax and other county offices in the courthouse could further harm a depressed business climate especially where housing is concerned.

However, some employees whose departments are not included in the four-day workweek are working "flex time" including a number in courthouse offices, Smith said.

"We are doing a lot of flex time," Smith said. "We have some people, and we have to monitor this so I want people not to be quick to judge, we have people who work from home at times. Some work from home one day a week, but they are on the computer doing different kinds of work. They log hours and it has been very effective because they have to meet certain marks and are doing so.

"The courthouse is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but in courthouse those folks who are county employees, about 40 to 50 percent of those folks are on flex time. They are working four 10-hour days, but where you may be off on Friday your counterpart is off on Monday."

Most department managers are not on flex time, Smith said.

Complementing the work schedule are the revamped routes for inspections.

"We send vehicles home (with employees) and we once thought, 'oh, that costs,'" Smith said. "It is saving us a ton in time because those guys hit the road at 7 in the morning and are at the first job first thing in the morning, and these contractors, when the light is out, they want to get started. Inspectors are in the office at certain times of the day. Then they go back and work their way back out on their routes in the region."

Smith noted at a recent commissioners' meeting that some commissioners mentioned fewer employees in some departments.

"Some like environmental health and inspections are down by choice because permits are down, so revenues are down," Smith said. "When that happens in business, you reduce production line times and number of people working. Our folks did that themselves, but they said if our business picks back up we want to be able to add (employees)."

A recent county-sponsored survey indicated that most county employees like the four-day workweek, Smith said. He added that he personally takes 10 employees to lunch every month or two.

"I was really interested (in the survey) to know because the bottom line is that when you are a service-related industry and when our people, the ones committed to the service to individuals, I know that when I have got an LPN, RN or nurse practitioner on their feet for 10 hours that is very, very hard," he said. "But do you see patients those whole 10 hours or do you see them for eight and then do paperwork for two?"

The county has indirectly benefited from the four-day workweek in terms of a reduction in employee turnover and sick leave and an increase in productivity, Smith said

"I think some of that is the economy," he said. "People are stabilizing where they are. They are not moving around as much because they are fearful, and I don't discount that. The other thing is that we have worked hard over the last seven years to put together a team satisfied with what they do. People have got to like what they do.

"With a four-day workweek you will note that people seem able to accomplish some things on Fridays and now volunteer in schools, look after elderly parents or take their children to the orthodontists. Instead of having to take Wednesday afternoon off they can do it on Friday."

The four-day workweek also has meant a reduction in commuting cost for employees, Smith said. Since the cost per gallon of gas is lower than the same time last year, Smith said he is comparing gallons not the price.

It also has benefited those employees who have part-time jobs.

"Before they could only work one (part-time) day since they had to have a full-time period between leaving one job and coming to work for the county," Smith said. "Now we have people who work part-time on Fridays and Saturdays where before could not work two days because it interfered with the sufficient time to rest before coming back to work for the county."

The day care issues that were raised early on in the process seem to rhave esolved themselves, Smith said.

"We are not hearing anything about that this fall," he said. "There have been some cases they seemed to have resolved those issues.

"It (four-day workweek) has worked. I get calls from all across the country National Association of Counties, city and county managers associations, human resources wanting to know how it works, how we are doing it. We adapted, our customers adapted."