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Clean-Air Regulations Call on Telecommuting : Home-Based Work Touted in Orange County as Strategy to FightSmog but Is Slow to Catch On

Times Urban Affairs Writer

Orange County developer Karl Bergheer spends two weeks each month supervising the construction of a resort project in Hawaii, so he keeps in touch with his Newport Beach office and with another project in Las Vegas through his personal computer and his fax machines. Even his yacht has a fax.

“I couldn’t work without it,” Bergheer says of the high-tech gear, which he was using Thursday afternoon on Maui to complete the purchase of property near Oxnard.

Similarly, former state Coastal Commission member Fred Johnson can manage real estate projects in West Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., where he can approve plans and deals via home computer and fax.

Mary Seels, a computer programmer for Allergan Pharmaceuticals in Irvine, has been working at home in Mission Viejo several days each week for the past six years, a move prompted by a lack of office space at her company. She files the new software she creates into the company’s mainframe computer through a modem, a device that allows the computer at her home to communicate with Allergan’s mainframe over a telephone line.

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And revenue analyst Kathy Greenberg of La Crescenta in Los Angeles County works at home on a computer on Fridays to avoid the 100 miles of grueling freeway traffic she would otherwise encounter traveling to and from her office at Pacific Bell’s computerized billing center in Anaheim.

Each of these people is telecommuting--making use of commonly available technology to avoid unnecessary trips.

More Promotion

Telecommuting is not new, but it is being promoted now more than ever before. It is one of the strategies the South Coast Air Quality Management District is encouraging as a way to reduce vehicle emissions in order to meet federal clean air standards by the year 2010.

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Traffic experts say that if telecommuting reduces home-to-work travel by 12% by the year 2000, there would be a 16.1% increase in the average morning-rush freeway speed--from 31 m.p.h. to 36.

And the AQMD projects that by the year 2000, such telecommuting would remove 171 tons of reactive gases, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide and particulates that would otherwise be in Southern California’s air every day.

So far, however, telecommuting has been slow to catch on among major employers, even in high-tech-oriented Orange County, where transportation officials see it affecting freeways the way icebreakers do frozen waterways.

Some critics believe that the regional government agencies’ goal--the elimination of 20% of all work trips by telecommuting by 2010--is too ambitious, pointing to the number and kinds of people who have taken advantage of it so far. Writers telecommute, and consultants and programmers telecommute. Outside of those professions, some experts say, telecommuting has been limited to a few workers here and there and to the well-to-do entrepreneurs and business executives who can afford to change their life styles.

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Plans to Cut Traffic

An impetus for more telecommuting is expected to come with the AQMD’s controversial new Regulation 15, which requires employers of 100 or more to reduce the number of employees who drive to work alone during peak traffic periods.

Under the regulation, employers face penalties of as much as $25,000 a day and a year in jail if they fail to submit adequate plans for achieving traffic-reduction goals. There is a rolling deadline for firms to submit plans through 1990, and some have already won approval for their Regulation 15 plans.

The AQMD staff, however, recently spot-checked 100 plans submitted by employers in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties and found that only five had indicated that telecommuting would be a part of their overall effort. This even though employers were told that they could earn credits toward compliance with Regulation 15 if their employees telecommuted.

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“It’s disappointing,” said AQMD spokeswoman Claudia Keith. “You would think that there would be more interest.”

But futurist and urban planning expert Jack Nilles of Los Angeles, a USC professor who is considered the “father of telecommuting” and who works as a telecommuting consultant from his home, says he is not surprised.

The company people who put together the plans for meeting Regulation 15 “don’t know what telecommuting is,” he said. “This is what I sort of expected in the initial reaction. You have to convince the corporate managers to try it.”

Arguments Against It

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The resistance among some company officials is strong, says Orange County Transit District planner Chris McKeever, because “they fear that they will lose control of their employees.”

Linda Bonniksen, a spokeswoman for Pacific Bell, which has several Orange County employees telecommuting at least once a week, agrees that corporate managers have to be able to say: “I trust you. I have confidence that you’ll get your job done.”

Also, Nilles says, it is simply easier for a company transportation director to offer workers other options such as an extra day off for joining a car pool or a van pool than it is to set up a telecommuting program from scratch--even though telecommuting saves money and, as some experiments have shown, can increase productivity.

“It hasn’t caught on in a big way because we’ll take a current pleasure rather than an imagined future pleasure,” says Ray Catalano, a professor of social ecology at UC Irvine. “And right now I can tell you that it’s more pleasurable to know that I can go to work, do my thing, pick up my paycheck and come home than thinking about what might happen to my company, my job and everything else to implement these air quality regulations.”

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Some experts, Nilles among them, believe that prevailing estimates of how much telecommuting is going on--5% of the 100-million-person U.S. workforce--are too low. One reason for that, he says, is that “a lot of people telecommute but don’t realize that’s what they’re doing.” Buying products over the telephone with a credit card, for instance, is telecommuting. So is using a home computer and modem to gain access to the catalogue for the UC Irvine main library.

Government Projections

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that about 10 million people will be working at home by next year; that figure is expected to rise to 15 million within a decade, and to possibly 25 million over the next 20 years.

Advocates argue that even telecommuting to work from home just one day a week will make a difference.

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But even among Orange County’s high-tech firms, such as Hughes Aircraft Co. in Fullerton and TRW Inc. in Orange, there are no plans to boost telecommuting.

National security restrictions and the deployment of workers according to new team concepts makes telecommuting impractical for most of his employees, Hughes Aircraft Vice President William R. Jones says.

Says TRW spokeswoman Susan Murdy: “It’s just not part of our (corporate) culture here.”

L.A. Pilot Project

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Los Angeles city and county employees are about to embark on a major telecommuting pilot project, but there are no plans for a similar program in Orange County--even though local government agencies are expected to reduce home-to-work trips among their staffs by 20% within two years.

Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder, who sits on both the AQMD and state Air Resources boards, said that, “given the greater number of employees the city and county of Los Angeles have combined, it’s more appropriate for them to be embarking on this.”

Wieder said she is considering a telecommuting plan for county government employees but that she wants more information about the need for it and how it would work.

She did say, though, “I just installed a fax machine in my home, and I’m amazed at the amount of work you can do with it.”

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Cost, of course, is a consideration. Telecommuting equipment can be had relatively cheap, depending on how much computer memory is needed for the type of work to be done. Many companies, such as Allergan and Pacific Bell, will pay for the equipment that will be installed in the employee’s home. Some personal computers cost less than $500, and a modem can be purchased for as little as $99. Portable fax machines are now going for less than $600. Software prices depend on the users’ needs, but they can range from a few dollars for the so-called public domain programs that computer clubs and electronic bulletin boards circulate to several hundred dollars for the big-name programs sold at retail.

Means for Freedom

For some people, telecommuting is the means that allows them to choose to live far from the work they are involved in.

It is partly because of telecommuting that places such as Phoenix and Santa Fe have become extensions of Los Angeles and Orange counties, said Frank Hotchkiss, a futurist at the Southern California Assn. of Governments, a six-county regional planning agency.

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Fred Johnson, the former Coastal Commission member who recently moved to Santa Fe, says telecommuting--especially by fax machine--allows him to live where he wants.

But, says Johnson, “the decision to move to some place like Santa Fe is not to be taken lightly. I was looking for an idyllic, natural environment, and the possibility of being driven to a life style as opposed to being career-driven. The reality is that telecommuting just isn’t for everyone. People can romanticize about it, but whether it is Santa Fe or Aspen, the facts are that it is an incredible readjustment. You must conduct your life very differently. . . .”

And, he adds, “the middle class may never have the flexibility to use it the way I did.”

One adjustment he had to make, Johnson says, was having to turn down some residential development projects that would have required too much personal attention.

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But when he does have to fly to California on business, Johnson adds, it often takes less time than a rush-hour car trip between West Los Angeles and south Orange County.

Employee Fears

Some experts warn that the work force will not be able to adapt to telecommuting as quickly as planners would like. They cite employee fears of isolation and lack of advancement, the risk of failure, and the possibility that unscrupulous employers may see telecommuting as a way to pay workers less and reduce employee insurance benefits.

There are legal issues too. Some cities have zoning and building code restrictions that pertain to conducting businesses out of homes.

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A sampling of Orange County telecommuters, however, reported no such problems.

“It has worked out very well for me,” says Mary Seels, the computer programmer who works for Allergan Pharmaceuticals. “The company decided to do this years ago because of a lack of office space. . . . I started out working at the kitchen table.”

Seels says she has no fear of being “out of sight, out of mind.” After telecommuting several days each week for a while, she received a promotion. “I get up by 8 or 8:30 and work on through to about 1,” she says. “And then I work at night. My husband works at night.”

Seels’ also has a cat, Schizo, to keep her company. She jokes that the refrigerator is always nearby too, but she adds, “I’m a Diet Coke drinker.”

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For 7, ‘It’s Great’

Jeff Kouba, one of Seels’ supervisors, says telecommuting has worked well for the seven Allergan employees who do it. “When they get their work done is not as important as getting it done, and I know from checking their productivity that it’s great,” he said.

Kathy Greenberg, who analyzes Pacific Bell’s revenue fluctuations at home in La Crescenta on Fridays, says: “I usually work from 6 to 3. I’m usually in my robe until 9 or 10, because I just get up and telecommute. I don’t break for lunch. . . . The momentum just keeps me going.”

Greenberg says she leaves her “computer room” occasionally for a smoke, and she sometimes has to put her doberman pinscher, Bear, outside if he becomes too feisty.

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“You have to be your own whip-cracker,” she says about working at home.

Greenberg says telecommuting also allows her to keep the standing Friday dinner date she has with her husband with less hassle than before, when she was commuting the 46 miles (or 61 miles by an alternate route) from Anaheim.

Bergheer, the Orange County developer who uses telecommuting to supervise his out-of-state projects, also has several employees who telecommute from their homes.

As for himself, he’s particularly fond of fax machines.

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“I wish I had gotten a fax sooner,” he says.

He’s even modifying the one on his boat.

“Right now it only receives,” Bergheer says. “I want it to send.”


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