Last Updated: June 9, 2008: 3:56 PM EDT
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Gas prices too high? Your employer might help

More and more companies are taking steps to ease the burden of record-high gas prices. The most popular option: A compressed workweek of four ten-hour days.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune) -- How did you get to work today? The average U.S. commute is now about 30 miles and, with gas at a record $3.97 per gallon, that can hit employees' wallets pretty hard. (Oh, you've noticed?)

So some companies are making efforts to help out. In fact, according to a new survey by Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, most companies are doing so. The firm polled human resources executives in companies large and small in a wide range of industries, and founf that 57% said they've launched at least one program, and usually several, designed to beat the high cost of commuting.

The most often cited, at 23%, are policies allowing - or even encouraging - people to work a compressed workweek of four 10-hour days. In addition, about 20% organize employee carpools, 18% subsidize the cost of public transportation, and 14% let people telecommute from home at least one day a week.

Keeping employees close to home

Why this burst of generosity? Chalk it up to enlightened self-interest. Despite the shaky job market, says CEO John Challenger, "many employers still count the recruitment and retention of talent among their top priorities. So they offer these gas-saving perks partly to keep their best and brightest workers from looking for jobs closer to home."

The survey shows that, while only a few companies so far report losing a valued employee because of high commuting costs, more than one-third (34%) say they've had coveted candidates turn down job offers because of long commutes.

Telecommuting, which cuts carbon-fuel use to zero, seems at first glance to be the most attractive option of all, especially when you consider that two independent researchers, Kate Lister and Tom Harnish, analyzed the American workforce and found that 40% of us have jobs that could be done remotely - yet only 4% actually work from home on a regular basis.

Most employers still hesitate to let people work in their bunny slippers, and for that Challenger blames the uncertain economy: "Telecommuting is a tough sell when business conditions are as weak as they are now. In a slowdown, managers want all their workers on the front line."

That's a pity for the planet: If all the U.S. workers who could telecommute actually began to do so, Lister and Harnish estimate we would conserve 625 million barrels of oil annually, cut greenhouse gas pollution by 107 million tons of CO2, and save almost $43 billion at the pumps.

Some companies are getting the message and expanding their support for telecommuting, often in combination with other programs that give employees a choice as to how they prefer to save fuel. CH2M Hill, a privately held engineering and construction firm in Englewood, Colo., that is one of Fortune's 100 Best Places to Work, recently expanded its IT capabilities to allow more people access to the systems and networks they need to reach while working from home. The company also makes it easy for employees to bike to work, offering amenities like showers and secure bike storage on-site.

Denver's new state-of-the-art light-rail system is partly subsidized by CH2M and, to encourage people to use it, the company started a program that lets employees buy rail passes using pre-tax payroll deductions. The passes are unlimited "all you can ride" tickets that take people all over the Denver area, day or night, for less than $30 a month.

Bike sharing

In its headquarters city of Louisville, Ky., health-care giant Humana (HUM, Fortune 500) has likewise launched several efforts to help employees cut the cost of commuting. About 10% of the company's employees nationwide are telecommuters, and Humana is working on raising that figure, in part by training more managers on how to lead virtual teams.

Meanwhile the company has cut a deal with the Louisville bus system, called TARC (for Transit Authority of River City), to let its 9,500 area employees ride free with a Humana I.D. card. In addition, Humana has a bike-sharing program called Freewheelin: Employees can register to sign out a bicycle and take it anywhere they want to go, as long as they return it within 24 hours, at which time they can sign out another bike if they choose.

Until Freewheelin started, human resources communication staffer Brian Moore, 27, used to drive his car 7 miles each way to work every day. Now, he's more likely to ride a bike home from the office and bring it back the next morning on the bike rack of a TARC bus. "It's great for saving money on gas, but also for fitness," he says. Moore has lived his entire life in Louisville, except for 4 years away at college, and "until Humana started these programs, I had never been on a TARC bus before." Plenty of his fellow employees are converts too, it seems: "I see some of the same Humana people taking the bus every day."

Companies like Humana that have started bike-sharing programs are taking a page from European cities like Paris and Amsterdam, where bike-sharing has for years been a popular way of fostering "green" and congestion-free transportation.

Of course, it isn't practical for everyone to bike to work, but before you decide you can't, consider these figures, from the American Automobile Association: With gas prices where they are now, the annual cost of owning a car and driving it roughly 15,000 miles is about $14,000. It costs about $120 a year to maintain a bike - or, if your employer is footing the bill, it costs nothing.

Readers, what do you say? Is your company doing anything to cut the cost of your commute? Have you found your own way around high gas prices? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog! To top of page

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