Employers and employees have seen gas prices rise to alarming levels, then ease a bit only to head back up again in a seemingly endless cycle. While pump prices hover in the $3 to $4 range, forecasters hint that $5 a gallon or higher prices may be in the future. The direction gas prices will go next is anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain. Pain at the pump is here to stay. The last time the average price of gas in the United States was less than $3 a gallon was in December 2010.
Employers react in a variety of ways. Some may informally allow more telecommuting without making major policy changes. Others may institute compressed workweeks, facilitate employee carpools, offer mass transit incentives, or take other steps to help.
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Encouraging employees not to drive to work alone
Some employers are partnering with employees and outside organization to take big steps. The Clean Air Campaign, based in Atlanta, has partnered with 1,600 Georgia employers on ways to reduce congestion, improve air quality, and help employees lower their fuel costs, according to the organization’s communications director Brian Carr.
One way Carr’s organization tries to make it easier for people to change their commuting habits is by offering rewards. Eighty-two percent of Atlanta-area commuters drive alone to work, he says. That may sound like a high percentage, but it’s “actually an improvement over three years ago.”
One incentive The Clean Air Campaign uses is the $3 a day program. “It’s a simple give-get,” Carr says. Employees sign up for the program through their employer. Through the registration process, the commuter identifies alternatives to driving alone that are practical for him or her to use. Then the commuter logs in to the program and reports when an alternative to driving alone is used. Drivers can collect $3 a day up to $100.
A commuter using an alternative can earn the $100 in just over a month — about the time it takes to change a habit, Carr says. Seventy-four percent of the people who benefit from the program are still using alternatives 18 to 24 months after their eligibility is exhausted, he says.
A one-time $100 bonus isn’t the only benefit, though, since incentives are offered to all commuters logging in, even after they’ve collected their $100. Carr says they have monthly $25 prize drawings available to anyone logging in.
Another incentive program encourages carpools. A carpool of three people registered with the organization can earn a $40 gas card each month for 12 months within a three-year period. A pool with four or more people qualifies for a $60 gas card.
“The incentives are an easy way to get instant gratification,” Carr says, “but it’s the long-term benefits that get more people to stick with it.” Those benefits include a more restful ride for the employee who is then ready to put in a more productive workday.
Who should be in charge of getting an employer’s program started? Carr says the traditional gateway for his organization has been through the HR department or possibly an employer’s “green team” or someone in a facilities type of role. Regardless of who spearheads a program, he says it works best when the C-suite makes its support obvious.
Carr likes to see alternative commute programs lined up alongside an employer’s retirement and medical plans and other benefits. He suggests literature about an employer’s program be included in new-hire packets since people are most likely to change their commuting habits when they start a new job. Lunch-and-learn events also help make a program successful.
Carr says employers make a mistake if they don’t communicate benefits and successes. Employees need to “see the needle actually moving in a positive direction,” he says. “To leave that information unused would be a misstep.”
Since telecommuting often is a major part of an employer’s effort to help employees cope with high gas prices, legal concerns must be considered. For example, wage and hour laws are an issue.
An article in the December 2011 issue of Minnesota Employment Law Letter reminds employers that if nonexempt employees telecommute, the employer must be able to accurately track hours and enforce any policies requiring meal or rest breaks. “To limit exposure in these areas, some employers have chosen to limit telecommuting arrangements to exempt employees,” the article says.
Workers’ compensation is another concern, the article points out, since it’s difficult to know if a telecommuting employee’s injury happened on the job.
The potential for discrimination is another area to consider when making telework decisions. “If workers perceive telecommuting as a perk that seems to be granted disproportionately to employees of a particular race, gender, or age, a discrimination charge or lawsuit likely will be in your future,” the article says.
Tammy Binford writes and edits news alerts and newsletter articles on labor and employment law topics for BLR web and print publications. In addition, she writes for HR Hero Line and Diversity Insight, two of the ezines and blogs found on HRHero.com.