State Encourages Flexibility for Baltimore-Washington Commuters
A recent report found that area commuters spend between 50 and 70 hours a year stuck in rush hour traffic. For more than a decade, state government has allowed its employees to craft more flexible schedules and is urging others to follow suit.
February 20, 2011 By Alexander Pyles | CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
Zina Brown doesn’t worry about her commute to work each day from suburban White Marsh to the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus.
She takes her time, leaving her home sometime before 9 a.m., then driving an easy 15 or 20 minutes, well after commuters from the morning rush are parked and at work. She stays at work until 7 p.m., again missing rush hour.
“It definitely helps, as far as being able to cut down on the traffic and driving and helping me to save on gas,” said Brown, 47, of her 10-hour-a-day, Monday through Thursday schedule. “I’m grateful to be able to work the flex schedule.”
Brown has benefited from state government’s position toward work schedules, which since 1999 has allowed employees more flexible schedules and telecommuting hours, said Colleen Denston, government affairs director for the Maryland Society of Human Resource Management State Council. The state has encouraged private businesses to follow suit, and some organizations, like Johns Hopkins, are doing so.
But overall, formal telework and flex programs at Maryland businesses are hit-and-miss, said Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, D.C. “Some companies totally embrace it, and some totally ignore it,” Wilsker said. “And the traffic here is ridiculous.”
Wilsker’s comments echo some of the key findings of a report released last month by the Texas Transportation Institute, which underscored the extent of the traffic problem in Baltimore and Washington and urged workers and their bosses to be more flexible with schedules to reduce rush-hour congestion.
Urban roadways around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are among the most congested in the nation, said the institute’s Urban Mobility Report, which measured traffic on freeways and major streets in 101 cities.
Washington and Chicago tied for the most time commuters spend sitting in traffic, with each being delayed about 70 hours a year, the report said. Baltimore ranked fifth, with about 50 wasted commuter hours per person a year.
Tim Lomax, a research engineer and co-author of the report, said fixing the problem isn’t as simple as improving infrastructure. “If you just put this off on the (government) agencies to solve, you’re missing out on the possible solutions,” he said.
Wilsker agreed with Lomax’s assessment, saying widening highways or adding roads is expensive and unnecessary. “We have enough road, but we have too many cars,” Wilsker said. “We don’t need (Interstate) 95 to be widened any more. We need to take some of the cars off.”
About 27 million Americans work flexible schedules in their full-time jobs, or 27.5 percent of full-time wage and salary workers, according to a 2004 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number is down from 28.6 percent in 2001. No study has been conducted since 2004.
While statistics are not kept on employees working alternate schedules in Maryland, Denston said telecommuting has become a large movement in state government. Since creation of a pilot program in 1999, the state has been “encouraging employers to follow in their footsteps,” she said. Denston did not have specific examples of agencies or businesses doing it well.
Wilsker said state government could do more. “They could be aware of it, they could promote it,” he said. He added many employers have concerns that prevent them from adopting formal programs. He said businesses always have the same question: “How do I know they’re working?” This concern, he said, is his favorite, “because how do you know they’re working in the office?”
The Maryland Department of Budget and Management asks state agencies to allow at least 10 percent of employees to telework up to four times a month per person, but agencies are not forced to reach that number, said Sheryl Hagood, a spokeswoman for the Office of Personnel Services and Benefits.
Lomax said if employers at all levels could offer more flexible work schedules, telecommuting or promote ride-share programs, the time spent sitting in traffic each year around Baltimore and Washington could be reduced.
“Some days, traffic’s just really horrible,” Lomax said. “[Employees should say] ‘It may be more productive for me to work at home three hours in the morning to get on the road, on the train and get to work.’”
In Washington, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employees are among those who can work flexible schedules, as can most federal employees, according to policies described by the Office of Personnel Management.
“You have to work 80 hours within a two-week period,” said Stacey Standish, a BLS spokeswoman. “But you can kind of split that up how you want, working a certain amount between 9:30 (a.m.) and 3 (p.m.).”
The Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, a large Maryland employer not far from the heavily traveled I-695 Beltway, gives all of its employees flexible scheduling options. “All headquarters employees are on flexible schedules, and everyone is eligible to be on alternate work schedules,” said spokeswoman Kia Green. “Also, there are employees who are authorized to participate in a telework program, and there are employees who carpool/rideshare, etc.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine, one of the state’s 10 largest private employers according to the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, has made it a point to be flexible with its approximately 32,000 employees, said Peter Tollini, director of human resources consulting and labor relations at Hopkins.
Some who work at Hopkins, like Brown, are allowed to work four 10-hour days and have a three-day weekend. Others can work three 12-hour days. Employees can also establish flexible hours within each day, with the permission of supervisors, so long as eight hours are worked between “core hours” of 5:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., Tollini said.
Hopkins encourages employees to use rideshare programs. Several private companies help coordinate ridesharing to Hopkins, and so does the Maryland Transit Administration’s rideshare program. “We adopted a formal program to encourage this type of flexibility about two years ago,” Tollini said. “One, to make it more attractive to employees. The other…gas prices were spiking at the time [and] we were looking at ways to stretch people’s paychecks. We try to leave it as flexible as possible.”
Though many employees at Hopkins are doctors and nurses who are allowed some flex but must be scheduled to provide 24/7 coverage, nonmedical personnel are often allowed a number of telecommuting hours each week, Tollini said.
For management types like Tollini, flex hours are built into the job. He said he works flex hours every day. “I get here as early as I can, and try to get out before it’s too late,” Tollini said. “The good part is, you get to miss rush hour.”