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It’s Easy Being Green: TGIF Can Save Us Money

SOURCE: AP/Douglas C. Pizac

Brandon Burns, of Lehi, UT, places renewal stickers on his license plate after visiting the Utah Department of Motor Vehicles office just before closing time on Thursday, February 19, 2009, in Draper, Utah.

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Here’s some good news for people who love three-day weekends: In August 2008 the State of Utah implemented a four-day workweek program that has closed about 17,000 of the 24,000 state offices every Friday as a way to reduce energy consumption and other utility costs. The program mandates that employees work 10 hours a day for four days a week, which has reduced energy consumption by 13 percent thus far according to an internal analysis. Utah is the first state with a mandatory four-day week but many county and city governments are seriously considering such a program because it can reduce pollution and energy costs.

Utah’s plan was announced by then-Governor John Huntsman, who predicted that the state would save $3 million of the $10 million budget during the new workweek’s first year, and he expected the state to experience a 20-percent energy consumption decrease by 2015.

State employees seem to like it so far—they gave the program high marks in a survey, and absenteeism, overtime, and customer complaints have all gone down. The Department of Motor Vehicles reported that its wait times have decreased under extended hours between Monday and Thursday. Some of the workers have even become energy “captains” to encourage their fellow employees to turn off lights and unplug electronics such as computers and coffee makers when they are not in use.

By implementing this system Utah estimates that employees will save between $5 million and $6 million annually if they don’t commute on Fridays, and the program will also reduce more than 12,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. If it’s nationally adopted, U.S commuters will save an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the eight million barrels a day they consume.

Utah’s initiative has been closely followed by small cities and counties nationwide that are grappling with budget deficits. According to USA Today, the four-day workweek concept has gained new supporters among city and county governments: Nearly one-sixth of U.S cities with more than 25,000 residents offer a four-day workweek to their employees. Alongside Utah’s mandatory system, several counties such as South Carolina’s Oconee County, Miami-Dade County in Florida, and New York’s Suffolk County—among others—are moving toward it.

The workweek initiative has the potential to bring health and environmental benefits because drivers will spend less time on the road, which means less greenhouse gases. According to the Clean Air Task Force, diesel particle levels hover around four to eight times higher in commuter vehicles than in surrounding air, since the pollution coming out of the tailpipe is most likely to affect a driver who is stuck in traffic. The California EPA estimates that 50 percent of a person’s exposure to ultrafine particles— especially those linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases—occur during rush hours.

But despite these benefits current Utah Governor Richard Herbert says it’s still debatable whether the four-day workweek will continue running after October of this year—when the final cost saving results will be released—because the price of oil and electricity dropped this summer. More than 200 of the state’s 900 buildings were closed on Fridays and it took months to get the rest of the buildings to operate efficiently during the days employees went to work. Some of the state workers did not fully comply with Utah’s orders of leaving work on time or not coming in on Fridays.

Whether the program continues or not, we should still consider the benefits of reducing national energy use and carbon emissions by minimizing heating and cooling in offices and giving commuters more travel options. A shorter week could also improve the work-life balance so employees can spend more time with their families and their local communities.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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