LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas agencies have had the ability to offer employees shorter work weeks for more than thirty years, but steep gas prices have prompted the state to take another look at ways to cut down on workers' time behind the wheel consuming fuel and polluting the air.
Lawmakers said Tuesday they'll study whether the state needs to revise its policies and find ways to allow more workers to cut down on their transportation costs by cutting the work week to four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. The move follows several other states changing their workweeks in response to record fuel costs.
"There's only so much that a person who is working hard every day for the state of Arkansas who is making maybe $8 to $10 an hour can bear paying $4 a gallon for gas," said Sen. Tracy Steele, who proposed the study approved by the House and Senate committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
Steele said he's unsure whether legislation may be needed in the session that begins in January to make changes to the current policy allowing flexible schedules for some workers. Currently, 33 state agencies already use some type of shortened work week, State Personnel Administrator Kay Barnhill-Terry told legislators Tuesday.
"This is not something that's totally new," she said.
Barnhill-Terry said she didn't know how many state employees currently work on four-day work schedules.
Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, said the state has allowed agencies to change working hours for employees as long as all workers still work at least an eight-hour day. Any changes from the five-day, 40-hour work week must be approved by the governor.
Weiss said the policy was first enacted in the early 1970s and has been continued by every governor since then. It was last updated by Gov. Mike Huckabee in 1997. Weiss said Beebe is looking at revising the policy, but it was unclear how much would change, if anything.
Beebe said he had allowed some state agencies to give their employees four-day work weeks, as long as they could stagger their staff to be open during business hours. He said several agencies had applied for the waiver to the governor's office.
"We will continue to do that as long as it's the kind of agency where they have the manpower and are able to continue to provide their essential services," Beebe said.
State agencies have provided abbreviated work weeks long before gas prices began to rise. Some work units in the Department of Human Services county offices have offered employees four- day weeks as long as it meant the office was still open five days a week.
"A four-day workweek (cannot) mean closing the office down for the day or restricting access to services," department spokeswoman Julie Munsell said.
Also, maintenance workers for the Arkansas Department of Highway and Transportation work on a four-day schedule during the summer to take advantage of long daylight hours.
Kay Durnett, executive director of the Arkansas State Employees Association, said she doesn't have any problem with the current policy but said there's some inconsistency among state agencies in carrying it out.
"The problem with the policy at this point is that some agencies have not taken the time or do not have the time to develop a policy that can be implemented for their employees," Durnett said. Steele said another possibility lawmakers may look at is allowing more state employees to telecommute.
The idea of a four-day workweek has gained popularity in other states as gas prices have climbed. The South Carolina Department of Transportation rolled out a pilot program earlier this month that offers four-day work weeks this summer in exchange for longer work days.
Shorter schedules have also been adopted by agencies in Florida and Kentucky, and Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Shelton is encouraging state agencies to adopt a compressed work week to spare employees fuel costs.
"Our employees need a reprieve," Shelton said Tuesday.
The proposal has also trickled down to several Arkansas cities and counties that are also mulling the idea of shorter workweeks for their employees.
"Most of the cities don't have residency requirements (for city employees) so consequently their employees commute a pretty good distance," said Don Zimmerman, executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League. "It's beginning to cause them some real financial problems because they're not the highest paid workers to begin with."
What the workers do with that extra day is a point of contention for some lawmakers.
"Is there any assurance that on their day off they won't do any driving around, doing the same damage? I'm just trying to find out if there's truly any savings," Rep. Rick Green, R-Van Buren, asked during Tuesday's hearing. "Will they be homebound that other day?"
"I don't think we're going to put leg monitors on them," Sen. Steve Faris, D-Malvern, replied.