As Gas Prices Skyrocket, Employees Look to the Boss for Help
BY Angus Loten
With prices at the pump now topping $4 a gallon, more companies are unveiling programs to help ease the daily commute.
Like many business owners, Eric Weiner was recently forced to pass on higher gas prices to his customers. The president of All Occasion Transportation, a Pawtucket, R.I.-based car and limousine service, Weiner says the added fuel surcharge has yet to put a dent in sales. The real problem is what to do for his 55 employees.
"Just going to and from work is getting tough," Weiner says. "Three months ago, we sat in a meeting and said we can't see fuel going over $4 a gallon. Now we're saying that about $5 a gallon."
In a recent survey of 100 human-resources managers by Challenger, Grey & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement firm, more than half said their companies now offer some type of program to ease rising commuting costs, in an attempt to safeguard productivity and attract and retain top talent.
"Part of the reason employers offer these gas-savings perks is to keep their best and brightest workers from seeking positions closer to home," says John Challenger, the firm's CEO. Workplace studies have shown the average commute is about 30 miles.
Among many approaches to defraying higher commuter costs, the survey found a growing number of workers and their employers are rediscovering carpooling.
"We're seeing a surge in interest by companies in setting up carpooling groups for their employees," says Steven Schoeffler, the executive director of eRideShare.com, a Edwardsville, Il.-based online service that pairs commuters up with drivers.
Schoeffler says the number of visitors to the site has quadrupled over the past few months alone. And unlike a spike in business he saw three years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when gas prices temporarily shot up, Schoeffler says the upturn in interest this time around is steady and climbing.
"I think what we're seeing now is a more permanent change in behavior," he says.
Last summer, 37signals, a Chicago-based online software firm, permanently cut Fridays out of its workweek. By reducing overall employee commuting time, the initiative proved to be a huge boost to staff morale, according to founder Jason Fried. The entire city of Birmingham, Ala., plans to follow suit. On July 1, the city will officially roll back schedules for all 4,000 of its municipal employees to a four-day workweek. Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford says the move is intended to soften the blow of higher gas prices.
Other popular -- and less radical -- approaches to cutting commuting costs include bike-sharing programs, telecommuting, and employer subsidized pubic transit, the survey found.
Public transportation incentive programs, offered through regional transit authorities, typically provide group discounts, pre-tax savings, and other benefits for workers who buy bus, train, and subway passes through their employer.
Just as gas prices began creeping up late last year, Principal Financial revamped a handful of its transportation perks. Nearly a quarter of the firm's 8,000 workers are now riding the bus to its Des Moines, Iowa, headquarters free of charge, thanks to a deal with the local transit authority.
"We've had a bus program in place for the past 15 years," says Michelle MinnehanGolightly, the financial services firm's senior benefits consultant. "But in the past year, the number of employees taking the bus shot up."
The company, which regularly gauges employee well-being at smaller businesses across the country in quarterly surveys, is in a unique position to see how workers and employers are coping with soaring gas prices. "It absolutely impacts morale," MinnehanGolightly says.
To lift his employees' spirits -- and keep them out of their cars -- Eric Weiner has starting throwing free onsite lunches and barbecues. He recently cut a deal with a local gas station to provide a free coffee for all his drivers. At the same time, he's also letting more of them take limos home overnight, and has managers and dispatchers working remotely with a newly installed Internet phone system.
"As an employer," Weiner says, "you do everything you can to help."