Politics & Government

New work week for county?

Following the lead of private companies and a growing number of other governments, Mecklenburg County commissioners on Tuesday will discuss putting some county employees on a four-day work schedule.

A proposal from commissioner Dan Ramirez would ask county leaders to explore the feasibility and possible implications of having some employees work 10-hour days four days a week. Under the proposal, some would work Monday to Thursday, while others would work Tuesday to Friday.

Ramirez said the proposal could help cut down on employees' commuting costs. The public also could benefit, Ramirez said, because some county offices could stay open later during the week.

“I think we need to be more proactive and think a little bit outside the box for the benefit of everyone,” he said. “It's not a policy, it's just a common-sense … business approach to governance.”

Commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to OK the study. On Sunday, some said they think it makes sense to study the issue, but want to see what county staff think of the idea.

Across the nation, many private businesses already have made the switch as gas prices soared in recent months. Some governments also have latched onto the idea, including the state of Utah, where more than 1,000 state buildings will close on Friday as the government moves to a 4-10 or “flex” week. The move could save an estimated $3 million.

Today, Wayne County in eastern North Carolina will become the first in the state to adopt a four-day workweek for a large portion of its employees.

Wayne officials estimate they'll save $300,000 a year on utility bills by having about 500 of the county's 1,032 employees work four, 10-hour days a week. Officials won't know for a few months what, if any, gas savings the four-day week will yield.

Other N.C. public bodies are also considering the switch, including the cities of Raleigh and Durham, as well as Central Piedmont Community College.

In Raleigh and Durham, some employees, including sanitation workers, already work four-day weeks.

But Durham City Manager Patrick Baker is skeptical that it would be realistic to spread that across the entire city.

“A municipal corporation is a full-service, customer-orientated operation, and I think citizens are used to having access to their services five days a week,” he said. “So you have to be really careful that you're not creating more problems than you're actually solving.”

Ramirez said he recognizes that a four-day schedule might not work for all Mecklenburg employees, including some in the sheriff's department. Ramirez said it would be up to department heads and other county officials to decide who ought to switch to the four-day plan.

At least one county department already has plans to study a four-day schedule.

Later this month, a group of 17 park and recreation employees will do a 30-day pilot of working Monday through Thursday, said department spokesman Mike Cozza. He said most of the workers, who are from the greenway maintenance team, wanted to try the idea, especially after talking to stormwater maintenance employees who already have moved to a four-day schedule.

But not everyone supports the schedule, Cozza said. Some employees had concerns about child care or how they could continue to work two jobs.

Commissioners chairman Jennifer Roberts said the county already tries to be flexible with employees' schedules, by sending out e-mails during poor air quality days to encourage workers to telecommute or carpool where possible. But rising gas prices could justify even more flexibility, she said, including a move to a four-day week.

Dan Bishop said he thinks “it makes sense to do whatever we can to adjust to the high cost of fuel.”

But he said he was looking forward to hearing County Manager Harry Jones' reaction to the proposal. Commissioner Norman Mitchell also said he thinks it would be a good idea, while noting it could present hardships for some employees.

Staff writers Matt Dees and David Bracken of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.