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Flex Time Reshapes Lifestyles : The 10-hour days can be tiring, but employees have the perception of more leisure time as a trade-off.

July 09, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine shrinking your workweek to four days--and stretching your weekend to three.

Well, to some, it's no longer just a dream.

Ask John Capra, 44, of Santa Clarita, a Southern California Edison Co. planner who works four 10-hour days a week and takes Fridays through Sundays off:

"I'm more invigorated when I go back to work on Mondays. After three days off, I don't say, 'Oh, shoot, it's Monday again.' I end up with a mini-vacation every weekend."

Or listen to Jenny Dodson, 35, of Mission Hills, a full-time nurse who works three 12-hour shifts a week at Valley Presbyterian Hospital, with four days off:

"It gives me maximum time at home with my kids. I do feel that too many children today are suffering. I see it in many of the kids I work with when I volunteer at my kids' classrooms. Too many kids are robbed of their parents."

And for Michael Ige, 37, of Van Nuys, working four days a week (with Mondays off) as an accountant at the Southland Corp. in Valencia saves money on car fuel (he spends $8 a week instead of $11 when he worked five days) in his 42-mile, round-trip commute.

But he acknowledges that 10-hour workdays can be fatiguing. "Usually when you get home, you don't have time to relax or catch up on chores," he says. "I finish dinner at about 7:30 and I'm ready to go to sleep."

Today, the four-day, 40-hour workweek--or "4/40" or "4/10" (four 10-hour days) or "flex time," as employers variously call it--seems to be reshaping America's workplace and lifestyles in mincing steps, if not yet giant leaps.

It's an idea that offers not more leisure time, but the perception of it. Actually, flex time simply rearranges the calendar that has ruled America's workplace for more than half a century, giving employees bigger chunks of time to relax or play and work, or to run errands on days when lines at banks and other venues are shorter, or even to rethink their own work ethic.

And it's a trend that meshes with these fast-changing 1990s, when millions of Americans--many in two-career or single-parent households--frantically try to balance careers with personal and family time.

Jenny Dodson and her husband, Stephen, 38, who works a four-day week as a police sergeant for the Los Angeles Unified School District, could qualify for advanced degrees in logistics. Both work all night, but when their staggered work schedules prevent either from looking after their children--Rebecca, 10, and Cathleen, 6--that task falls to Jenny's mother, Judy Prey, also a nurse, who works three day shifts a week at Valley Presbyterian, which is in Van Nuys.

Sometimes Jenny arrives home from work not long after sunrise--just in time to greet her daughters as they dash off to school. "If my husband's off, he gets the kids up and gets them ready," Jenny says. "And since I'm already dressed, I drive them to school."

Some experts say leisure has become more precious amid what they call growing dissatisfaction--particularly among women--with fast-track careers that all but cancel out family.

"Women realize they don't have to work 60 hours a week and earn an MBA at night to be complete people," said Frank McBride, a project director for Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a market-research firm in Westport, Conn. "That was a lie that was sold to them in the '70s and '80s. . . . Now they're trying to get fulfillment out of their jobs, but they don't want it to be all-consuming."

For now, flex time appears more evolutionary than revolutionary--driven less locally by employers than by efforts to improve Southern California's air quality.

In 1988, the South Coast Air Quality Management District began requiring government agencies and large companies (those with at least 500 employees at first, 100 employees now) to implement programs aimed at thinning out commuter traffic and polluted air in Los Angeles and three other counties.

They include car-pooling and flex time, which encompasses not just 4/40s (or 4/10s) but a plan called "9/80," wherein employees take one extra day off every other week.

In the San Fernando, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, at least 36 companies and government agencies have adopted some form of a compressed workweek, 27 opting for four-day schedules, according to the AQMD.

And some municipalities and county agencies have embraced various forms of flex time not just to help the AQMD address air quality, but to accommodate budgets and finances hammerlocked by California's recession.

To date, car-pooling (or ride-sharing) has exceeded flex time as an option, if only because employers tend to be less enthused than employees about flex time.

However, as Cheryl Fields, an official of Los Angeles-based Commuter Transportation Services Inc., which facilitates car-pooling and flex-time programs, points out: "The compressed workweek wasn't terribly popular with employers until recently. Many are discovering that it's a win-win situation for everyone."

Actually, employers say the four-day workweek has had mixed results.

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