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5-second commute: Gas prices are newest incentive to work from home

By Peter Healy
Staff Writer

Maria Venneri of North Stamford filled the tank of her Jeep Wrangler for $70 last week.

The good news is her gasoline bill is 50 percent lower now that she works from home one or two days a week.

"By the end of the day, the work gets done," said Venneri, who has worked for the mailing systems and postage meter company for 15 years. "There is no reason more people can't do it with the technology we have now."

Venneri said she now buys gas every 10 or 11 days, rather than weekly.

The seemingly short 6-mile trip from her house near the Merritt Parkway to Pitney Bowes' headquarters overlooking Stamford Harbor takes more than a half-hour because of stoplights, traffic jams, construction and school buses, she said.

Telecommuting saves Venneri time, money and fuel. A "soft phone," which sends telephone calls to a headset at her laptop computer, allows her to work as a vendor analyst in the Pitney Bowes benefits relations department from either location.

More workers in Connecticut and lower Fairfield County have started telecommuting or working four-day weeks to save time and gasoline.

A 2007 survey by Telecommute Connecticut reveals an 86 percent increase in telecommuting statewide over the past five years.

Telecommute Connecticut, an agency of the state Department of Transportation, is helping more than 200 companies to enable employees to work from home one or more days each week by setting up phone, computer, software, printer and fax systems.

"In the next few months, we are going to see more individuals and companies looking to start a telecommuting program," said Jean Taylor Stimolo, program manager for Telecommute Connecticut. "You can do almost anything from anywhere because of technology. Ten years ago, that wasn't the case." Stimolo expects telecommuting to become even more popular amid the current explosion in gasoline prices.

But while telecommuting is becoming increasingly popular as workers try to reduce commuting expenses, millions of Americans must continue to battle traffic and pay high fuel costs on a five-day basis, said Chuck Wilsker, president and chief executive officer of the Telework Coalition.

The organization counts 20 large U.S. corporations and 75,000 of their employees as members.

"It ain't for everybody. There are things when you have to be there," Wilsker said. "It's for knowledge-based people who spend their days on the computer and the phone. I think companies have to accept telecommuting."

Time and costs can help persuade some Monday-through-Friday motorists to drive less.

The American Automobile Association estimates the average cost per mile to drive a vehicle this year is 54.1 cents nationwide.

Using that figure, Telecommute Connecticut said a commuter who drives 60 miles a day, five days a week, pays about $7,790.40 in commuting costs annually. That worker would save more than $1,500 a year, or 20 percent, through telecommuting one day a week. The savings climbs to more than $3,000 a year, or 40 percent, for a twice-a-week telecommute.

The compressed, or four-day, work week, is another money-saver.

Ed Houghton of Shelton, Pitney Bowes' director of work force effectiveness, started working four days a week in December. He previously drove 70 miles a day to and from the Stamford headquarters, but now works at a Pitney Bowes office in Shelton.

Houghton, 56, who has worked at the company for almost 37 years, said he visits his grandchildren or does home improvement projects on his extra day off. He said he eats lunch at his desk during his 10- to 11-hour days to save time.

His shorter commute and shorter work week mean more quality time, he said.

"I used to spend nearly 12 to 15 hours in the car that was completely unproductive," Houghton said. "It was great for listening to audio books, but ineffective for the company."

Alix Rizzolo, vice president of planning, operations and customer service for Pitney Bowes, said seven out of 70 employees in her department work a four-day week. "More people want to do it as they come back to work on Monday with more gasoline horror stories," she said.

Hospitals in lower Fairfield County have used three- and four-day weeks with longer shifts for the past several years to recruit and retain nurses, with fuel saving as an unintended effect.

Stamford Hospital spokesman Scott Orstad said it has extended the shorter week to respiratory therapy workers as well, to help recruit scarce talent.

But David Lewis, president of Operations Inc., a human resources consulting firm in Stamford, said the four-day week and telecommuting are not panaceas because of productivity concerns. He said fatigue can occur during a longer shift, and it might be hard to monitor employees working at home.

"It's great to save energy, but you have to look at the productivity of your employees," Lewis said. "Putting two extra hours into each day are not going to be nearly as productive as working the last day of the week. What do you do when all of your customers are calling at 3 o'clock on a Friday afternoon?"

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