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Working 7 to 5--Four Days a Week : Workplace: Companies are increasingly turning to a compressed workweek to meet pollution laws and to recruit workers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While most of her friends will be at work this Friday, Barbara Davenport plans to do her Christmas shopping.

Davenport, a payroll coordinator at Builders Emporium’s corporate headquarters in Irvine, will be able to avoid the weekend crush thanks to a company program allowing her to work a four-day week.

Instead of working Fridays, she shops, travels or runs errands. “And sometimes it is great to have a day to do nothing but maybe read or sew,” she said.

The day off, she said, is well worth waking at 4:30 a.m. four days a week so she can put in a 10-hour workday.

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Davenport is one of thousands of Southern Californians who log their 40 hours a week in an untraditional way.

Pushed by air quality regulations and other concerns, companies increasingly are compressing workweeks for some or all of their employees from five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days or even three 12-hour days. Others are offering a three-day weekend every other week to employees who put in 9-hour days.

Industry flirted with the alternative workweek in the early 1970s, in response to the gasoline crunch. But as the crisis faded, firms slid back to the five-day routine.

Interest is reviving in Southern California now largely because of a new regulation of the South Coast Air Quality Management District requiring the Los Angeles Basin’s 7,000 largest employers to take steps to eliminate one of every three potential car trips to work during the morning rush hours. Car-pooling is one option. Another is having employees come to work less frequently and stay longer.

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Besides helping to unclog the smog-filled Los Angeles Basin, shortened workweeks are credited with improving morale, reducing turnover and absenteeism, and aiding worker recruitment in the region’s highly competitive employment market.

But employers also say a compressed workweek can cause fatigue, hinder communication between employees on different schedules and create headaches with client firms and customers who expect companies to be open regular hours.

Besides Builders Emporium, a home improvement chain, other companies that recently have initiated or expanded compressed workweek programs to reduce commuter trips include the Norwalk facility of Bechtel Corp., the San Francisco engineering and construction company; Delco Remy, an Anaheim battery manufacturer; Avco Financial Services, an Irvine-based financial services institution, and Chevron USA, at its refinery in El Segundo.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is in the early stages of evaluating a compressed week. Beth Louargand, deputy business manager, said although it would not be feasible for teachers to change their hours, she believes that many employees in payroll, accounting, maintenance and other support positions--who number in the thousands--could do so.

About 100 food preparation workers and 150 school police officers have been on a four-day schedule for several years, she said, and another few dozen people in various departments have been added to the program recently.

“We have just taken our first baby steps,” Louargand said.

Compressed workweeks are generally viewed as an employee benefit, although under most plans the number of hours worked remains the same.

Eliminating one daily commute per week “saves wear and tear on the car and body, and it feels like a holiday,” said Tim Trujillo, vice president of administration at Mitsubishi Consumer Electronics in Santa Ana. The firm’s 600 employees have been on a four-day week for nine years.

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Trujillo said turnover and absenteeism have dropped because workers often use the extra day off to attend to family and other personal demands.

The AQMD says cutting a day out of the workweek can help companies achieve a quick reduction in automobile trips at no additional cost.

And commutes are getting longer, employers say, as workers move outside metropolitan Los Angeles and Orange Counties to grasp more house for their dollar.

Judy Quiroz, who moved from Whittier to Vista in northern San Diego County to buy a house on two acres of land, travels 75 miles to her secretarial job at Delco Remy in Anaheim. So she is particularly grateful to be one of four employees at the plant who are trying out a four-day workweek.

“You can tolerate the commuting by having the extra day off,” she said.

Long commutes were part of Chevron’s motivation in July when it put 375 people on 12-hour shifts operating its El Segundo refinery. The company is about to test an alternative workweek that could be applied to the refinery’s office, engineering and maintenance staffs.

Phil Humphries, manager of human resources at the refinery, which employs 1,100, said the program is being adopted “primarily to try to ease the commute for our employees. We found more and more of our employees were living greater distances from the refinery to find housing they could afford.”

Humphries said the program, along with an expanded company van service, also coincides with AQMD’s campaign to clean the air in the basin.

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John Dunlap, director of public affairs for the AQMD--which has put its own staff on a four-day workweek--said the compressed workweek programs are an effective pollution control measure.

District regulations require companies to submit draft plans to reduce commuting trips. Although all of the plans will not be in hand until late 1990, “we are already seeing that more of the larger companies are embracing compressed workweeks,” Dunlap said. Of the 200 employer plans that so far have been entered into the AQMD computer system, about 50 show interest in trying a compressed workweek, according to the AQMD.

Similarly Don Torluemke, president of Ekistic, a Los Angeles consulting firm helping employers comply with AQMD regulations, estimates that of the 700 companies he has worked with in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino, more than half are considering adopting a compressed workweek and about 25% already have done so.

One obstacle to the shortened workweek is that state law requires companies to obtain a vote of approval from two-thirds of affected workers before requiring employees routinely to work more than eight hours a day without overtime pay.

Rather than shorten the workweek, many employers prefer to give employees “flexible work hours” so they can create individualized time schedules within the traditional eight-hour work day.

But other companies like Fluorocarbon, a Laguna Niguel-based manufacturer of rubber moldings and other industrial components, have had a four-day workweek many years and swear by it.

Peter Churm, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said about 2,000 of the company’s 3,400 employees in the United States and Europe have Fridays off, although the sales and service staff are available to deal with customers.

One of the best advantages of the four-day workweek, said Churm, is that “it is a wonderful way to recruit people. If we are trying to hire machinists and someone else is, we always wind up getting the guy because he likes the four-day workweek.”

Rita Brohman, a traffic management consultant who works for clients of Ekistic, said a four-day workweek sometimes exhausts employees in physically demanding jobs, reducing productivity. But she said there has been clear improvement in the productivity of 30 employees in accounting, payroll and management information systems at Builders Emporium’s Irvine headquarters since they switched to a compressed week 14 months ago.

Brohman said white collar workers find that when they work more consecutive hours, “It is much easier to keep going and finish a project--especially when you know a three-day weekend is coming up.”


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