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County Workers May Pioneer Flex Time to Help Ease Traffic Woes

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to help reduce rush-hour traffic, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors next week is expected to take the first step toward establishing a flex-time work plan that would allow thousands of county employees to alter their traditional 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. shifts.

On Tuesday, the board will consider an ambitious proposal from county administrators that, if approved, could create staggered work hours for as many as one-fourth of the county’s 13,500 employees by late this year.

The shift changes would not reduce service hours to the public, and eventually could even expand public service beyond the typical 8-to-5 period, county officials said.

Designed to ease morning and evening peak-hour traffic congestion, the flexible work plan could help make what Supervisor John MacDonald described as “a very significant dent” in freeway traffic if, as county officials hope, private firms follow the county’s example.

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‘Show Some Leadership’

“Getting some of our own employees off the freeways during peak hours is a big step in the right direction, but the really significant potential impact lies with the private sector,” MacDonald said during a conference on traffic problems last month. “We’re in a position where we can show some leadership and prove that this can work.”

Under the proposal, county employees would be encouraged to adopt staggered starting and quitting times to allow them to travel to and from work during non-peak periods. At the discretion of department heads, employees now working 8-to-5 shifts--roughly half of the county’s overall work force--could start their eight-hour workdays between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and quit between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Alternative work schedules would pose problems for certain departments, such as the 2,000 workers employed in the criminal justice system, county officials concede. A county survey conducted last year showed that 450 other workers have inflexible commitments such as child care or already participate in car pools, whereas about 600 county employees now work flexible schedules.

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Of the remaining employees, county officials believe that about 3,700 workers are likely candidates for flexible work hours, according to Ethel Chastain, the county’s director of human resources.

If the supervisors approve the proposal Tuesday, county officials plan to have the flex schedule in place by December.

Preliminary employee inquiries have indicated that those workers interested in working a non-traditional schedule are about evenly split between those who prefer to start earlier than 8 a.m. and those who would like to begin their workday later, said Dan Kelley, a county labor relations official.

“For a whole variety of personal reasons, it varies from worker to worker as to whether they’d like to start earlier or quit earlier,” Kelley said. Spouses’ schedules, child-care commitments and mass transit schedules are among the factors affecting workers’ preferred work hours, Kelley added.

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Based on workers’ initial positive reaction to the added flexibility in their own schedules, county officials expect to attract more than enough volunteers to meet their goal of reducing by 50% the existing 8-to-5 work force in most departments.

“The goal is to reduce traffic, but employee morale is an important fringe benefit,” said MacDonald aide Nancy Allen. “People will arrive at work a little fresher if they don’t have to sit in traffic all morning, and they like being able to match their work schedules to their personal needs. Starting or quitting an hour earlier means a lot to a lot of people.”

However, because existing county policy authorizes department heads to establish work schedules, Kelley conceded that some workers conceivably could have staggered hours imposed on them against their will.

“But we expect this is going to be something people volunteer for, not get ordered to do,” Kelley added.

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