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Firms Struggle to Meet Clean-Air Rules : From Out of the Smog Emerges a 4-Day Week

OPERATION BLUE SKY: The Quest for Clean Air in the Los Angeles Basin. One in an occasional series.

June 17, 1989|FRANK CLIFFORD | Times Urban Affairs Writer

Thank God it's . . . Thursday?

Could the old weekend rallying cry have a new ring to it? Apparently so. The four-day workweek is growing in popularity among Southern California employers trying to reduce the daily number of commuters to comply with tough new air pollution control regulations.

Cathy McTee of Commuter Computer, a nonprofit transportation research organization, estimates that 6% to 8% of employers in the region--ranging from supermarket chains to defense contractors--have begun experimenting with four-day workweeks. Transportation experts say that, nationwide, only 2% to 3% of employers are operating on abbreviated workweeks.

Officials of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is in charge of enforcing the new air quality regulations, estimate that of the company compliance plans they have approved, about 20% have indicated they will convert to four-day work schedules for at least some of their workers. The companies employ thousands of workers because the minimum number of employees in each firm is 500.

Although a shortened workweek creates its own set of potential problems--ranging from fatigue on the job to family stress, praise for the four-day week comes from a variety of firms, large and small, who have tried it.

"It's an incentive, a cure for the Monday blues and the Thursday blahs. There's definitely less absenteeism as a result," said Jim Manion of the human resources office of the Alpha Beta supermarket chain in La Habra.

At the Fluorocarbon Co.'s Anaheim division, Vice President Bill Joslin looks out at the company parking lot on Thursdays and sees a fleet of campers and boat trailers poised for an early weekend getaway.

"Our people seem to love it. They can leave Thursday, return home early Sunday and beat the weekend traffic coming and going," Joslin said.

Joslin and others pointed out that employees also use their extra days for doctor's appointments and personal business that they used to have to take time off for.

After studying 44 local firms that offer shortened workweeks, Jonathan Monat, chairman of the human resources management department at Cal State Long Beach, found that the work environment improved in a number of ways. "Absenteeism and turnover declined modestly. . . . Production increased very modestly. Morale improved and recruitment improved."

Still, the new work schedule is not for everyone.

With the four-day workweek comes the 10-hour workday. The longer hours can bring fatigue on the job and, in certain cases, a higher risk of injury or accident. A 10-hour day can also lead to stress at home, with family members seeing less of each other and, in many cases, struggling to find day-care centers with longer hours.

Employers, too, face adjustments.

Some can afford to stop operations on Fridays or Mondays. For companies that must stay open all week, the four-day work schedule may mean learning how to platoon a work force.

Nevertheless, even some hospitals, including the Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, are among the employers experimenting with the four-day workweek.

About 20% of the hospital's work force is now on what is being called a compressed workweek, said Mary Sova, director of human relations.

Sova said that while the hospital is short on key personnel, it has solved the problem with an overtime system that offers premium pay for employees willing to work extra days.

A compressed workweek does not always mean a four-day week. At the Kennedy Medical Center, as well as many other hospitals, registered nurses in critical-care fields work three 12-hour days. At Ekistic, a Los Angeles consulting firm, employees work nine-hour days and take a three-day weekend twice a month.

State law permits companies to change work hours providing an agreement is reached between the employer and at least two-thirds of the employees, said Karla Yates, executive officer of the state's Industrial Welfare Commission.

Despite widespread enthusiasm for the shortened workweek, some experts believe it will be a short-lived trend.

"History has shown it doesn't pay for a lot of companies. For example, many firms tried it during the fuel crises of the 1970s and found it didn't work for them or their employees," said Catherine Wasikowski, a transportation consultant who helps employers comply with the AQMD traffic reduction regulations.

"It doesn't work for very simple reasons. When someone calls the office and finds that the one person he needs to talk to isn't there that day, business tends not to get done," Wasikowski said.

Yet, she concedes that there is plenty of interest these days in the four-day week.

"Out of the 100 firms I come in contact with each month, I would say a third of them are contemplating the compressed workweek," she said.

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