Gas Prices Affect How Employees Commute to Work

By Kathy Gurchiek Aug 4, 2011
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Gas prices are expected to climb again in the second half of 2011. Workers intent on cutting the flow of dollars from their pocket into their gas tank are changing their driving and spending habits, according to a ComPsych Corp. survey released July 2011.

The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.70 on Aug. 2, 2011, 14 cents higher than a month earlier and more than a dollar more than the same month in 2010, according to National Public Radio.

The current national average for a gallon of regular gasoline is $3.693. In August 2010 it was $2.742; in June 2011 it was $3.575, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge.

“The continued climb of fuel costs has caused employees to rethink their commute as well as their household expenditures,” Richard A. Chaifetz, chairman and CEO of ComPsych, said in a news release. ComPsych is a provider of employee assistance programs.

“The financial calls we receive have shown a renewed interest in budgeting as families and individuals struggle to offset the gas premium by saving in other areas,” he added.

ComPsych Corp. conducted the survey from June 6-July 1, 2011, e-mailing it to about 10,000 e-mail addresses taken from 8 million U.S. employees who have access to ComPsych’s services.

Among the survey’s gas price-related findings:

  • 41 percent of workers drive less often or combine trips because of rising gas prices.
  • 22 percent have cut spending in other areas.
  • 16 percent have not changed their habits.
  • 13 percent have postponed or canceled vacations or other trips.
  • 8 percent carpool to work, use public transportation or telecommute when possible.

The findings echo those in a May 2011 SHRM Online article, which reported that “the spike in gas prices in 2011 is forcing U.S. companies to re-evaluate how to conduct business and prompting workers to explore alternatives to their daily commutes.”

Those alternatives include employer-sponsored bike-sharing programs, staggered shifts to circumvent rush hour traffic, and remote offices.

In its 2008 report Moving at the Speed of Congestion, Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) had found that Chicago and six surrounding counties had lost an estimated $7.3 billion annually in time, fuel and productivity.

In Chicago, where about 71 percent of workers drive solo to work daily, the MPC and Civic Consulting Alliance are using a 2011 pilot program to encourage area employers to promote transit alternatives among employees. Participants include the Chicago Public Schools Central Office, Goose Island Beer Co. and W.W. Grainger Inc.

Under the program, MPC conducts free employee surveys and evaluations before participating employers launch their Commute Options programs to help create a customized employer program.

The MPC plans to conduct a follow-up survey six months later to measure such data as reduced commute times and greenhouse gas emissions as well as fuel savings and employee retention rates.

In addition, MPC will link participating employers with regional partners—including the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, Pace Suburban Bus and the City of Chicago—for help in implementing program incentives.

Those incentives include the Regional Transportation Authority Transit Benefit Fare Program; bike sharing; carpooling and car sharing; telecommuting; Emergency Ride Home programs; and employer-assisting housing programs such as those in Florida and Illinois that help employees buy or rent homes close to work or transit.

Grainger, a supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products, started a three-month program in June 2011. It offers a direct shuttle from commuter train stations and preferred parking for registered carpoolers. It encourages employees to register with Pace’s Rideshare program to locate car and van pool options.

More than 1,900 employees report to the headquarters, located in Lake Forest, Ill. Grainger, situated in Lake County, is about 20 miles outside of Chicago and among the six counties cited in the MPC report that is losing time, fuel and productivity to gridlock.

Some employees often have a two- to two-and-a-half hour drive going into Chicago, according to Gail Edgar, vice president of Corporate Facility Services and leader of the company’s commuter options program.

She cited environmental stewardship and easing employee commutes as the main reasons why the company began the program.

“We knew something needed to be done, and that’s when we started to explore employee commuting options and support sustainability efforts,” Edgar told SHRM Online.

The personalized shuttle service has reduced employee commute time by about 30 minutes, Edgar said, and participation has increased 5 percent in the past month.

An added benefit for those who normally carpool but need transportation to tend to a sick child or who need to stay late at work is the company’s Guaranteed Ride Program, which contracts with a local taxi service and reimburses employees who use the cabs.

The carpooling program also has been popular at Grainger, where, even with 2,500 parking spots, “if you come in at 8 o’clock you’re walking quite a distance,” she said, and that can be an unpleasant experience during Chicago’s brutal winters.

Interest in carpooling has exceeded the 15 assigned parking spots near the door; Grainger is looking at adding reserved spots. Participants must commit to carpooling at least one day per week and cannot use the reserved parking unless it is a carpool day for them.

The carpooling option goes beyond employees riding together, Edgar said.

“Employees can register on the Rideshare Database on the Pace website to help find a car pool,” she said, adding that the company makes it easy to purchase commuter train tickets using its Commuter Benefits Program’s automatic, pretax payroll deductions.

The program was simple to put together, Edgar said. Grainger promoted it with a commuter fair, posters and the company intranet.

“The most difficult part was knowing what components [of a program] … we should be thinking about,” she said. The company surveyed employees at the end of 2010 to determine the level of interest in carpooling and other options.

Among employees not participating in the commuting program, the positive feedback about how they viewed the organization was significant, Edgar said. For those who do participate, “they can get to work and be more productive and more efficient and feel good about being an employee of Grainger. At the same time … every car we can take off the road is a benefit for all.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

Related Resource:

Workplace Flexibility Resource Page, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline

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