CINCINNATI (Reuters) - When Ohio's Kent State University offered custodial staff the option of working four days a week instead of five to cut commuting costs, most jumped at the chance, part of a U.S. trend aimed at combating soaring gasoline prices.
"We offered it to 94 employees and 78 have taken us up on it," said university spokesman Scott Rainone.
The reason is simple: rising gas prices and a desire to retain good workers. And while so far only the university's custodians are eligible, Rainone hopes the option will be offered to all departments -- including his own.
"In our office, we have people who travel anywhere from five or six miles to a couple who are on the road 45 to 50 minutes," Rainone said. "As the price of gas rises, the level of grumbling rises."
Regular gasoline averages $3.94 a gallon in the United States, up 33 cents in the past month and 88 cents since the beginning of the year, the Energy Information Administration said this week.
The federal government has offered four-day workweeks to eligible employees for years as part of a flexible work program that also includes telecommuting.
But the surge in gasoline prices is pushing more private employers as well as local governments to offer a four-day week as a perk that eliminates two commutes a week.
Staff at Neighborhood Development Services in rural northeastern Ohio were talking about quitting to find work closer to their homes when executive director Dave Vaughan stepped in with offers to compress their work week.
"I didn't want to lose people," Vaughan said of the program, which more than half of his 19 employees began last week. "In rural areas like we are, gas price increases are more challenging because we don't have the mass transit alternative -- we can't jump on a bus or take a train."
Eventually, Vaughan hopes to close the office one day a week, further reducing energy costs.
In America's struggling automaking heartland, the shorter workweek offers employers a way of rewarding employees when the budget does not allow a salary increase, said Oakland County, Michigan, executive L. Brooks Patterson.
"By allowing employees to work four 10-hour days it will save them 20 percent on their commute costs and ease the financial pinch of filling up their cars," said Patterson, who last week proposed the compressed week for county workers.
Gasoline prices have begun altering U.S. commutes in many ways, a survey released on Thursday showed.
Some 44 percent of respondents said they have changed the way they commute -- doing things such as sharing a ride or driving a more fuel-efficient car -- or are working from home or looking for a closer job in order to reduce gasoline costs, according to staffing services company Robert Half International. That's up from 34 percent two years ago.
On New York's Long Island, Suffolk County legislator Wayne Horsley also has proposed employees have the option of working four 10-hour shifts, rather than five eight-hour shifts, saying it would save 461 barrels of oil in a 120-day pilot project.
"This is a gasoline-driven proposition and we're looking to change people's long term philosophies of life," Horsley said.
The program, termed Operation Sunshine, will cut gasoline costs for workers who drive an average round trip of 32 miles to work. It also aims to cut the county's energy bill by having fewer employees in the office at a time, Horsley said.
In Oklahoma, a resolution is pending before the state legislature encouraging state agencies to implement flexible work schedules that would allow the four-day workweek.
"State employees are on fixed budgets and they are not usually the most highly paid in our society," said State Sen. Earl Garrison, a Democrat, who sponsored the measure.
Some schools, including community colleges in rural areas where commutes are long and public transportation is scarce, already have plans to drop a day of classes, usually Fridays.
The school district in Marietta, Georgia, a city north of Atlanta, institutes a four-day week during June and July when schools are out and it is mostly administrative staff who are working, saving on air conditioning and water in addition to commuting costs for employees, said Thomas Algarin, director of communications at Marietta City Schools.
But a four-day workweek brings problems too. The state government in Ohio is bucking the national trend and canceling an 8-year-old policy that allowed a compressed workweek.
"There were just too many vacant seats on Friday," said Ron Sylvester, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services.
Additional reporting by Karen Pierog in Chicago, Kevin Krolicki in Detroit, Marcy Nicholson in New York, Matthew Bigg in Atlanta and Tom Doggett in Washington; Editing by Bill Trott and David Wiessler