Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Innovative public policy from the Mountain West: Example 1

Posted by Danny Morris on August 6, 2009

It’s rare that the state of Utah comes up with an innovative public policy, let alone gets recognized for it. Come to think of it, it’s rare that Utah gets any shoutout not related to the dominant culture or the occasional piece on the peculiar culinary delights found in the state.That’s why last week was a particularly exciting week for the Beehive State, as both Brad Plumer and Matt Yglesias called out Utah for its clever policies. Both authors highlight a Scientific American article looking at the state’s new 4 10-hr day work week (work M-Th, take Friday off) and the effects it’s had since its inception last year:

For those workplaces, there’s no longer a need to turn on the lights, elevators or computers on Fridays—nor do janitors need to clean vacant buildings. Electric bills have dropped even further during the summer, thanks to less air-conditioning: Friday’s midday hours have been replaced by cooler mornings and evenings on Monday through Thursday. As of May, the state had saved $1.8 million.

Perhaps as important, workers seem all too ready to replace “TGIF” with “TGIT”. “People just love it,” says Lori Wadsworth, a professor of public management at Brigham Young University in Provo. She helped survey those on the new Working 4 Utah schedule this May and found 82 percent would prefer to stick with it.

The environment seems to like it, too. “If employees are on the road 20 percent less, and office buildings are only powered four days a week,” Langmaid says, “the energy savings and congestion savings would be enormous.” Plus, the hour shift for the Monday through Thursday workers means fewer commuters during the traditional rush hours, speeding travel for all. It also means less time spent idling in traffic and therefore less spewing of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. The 9-to-5 crowd also gets the benefit of extended hours at the DMV and other state agencies that adopt the four-day schedule.

An interim report released by the Utah state government in February projected a drop of at least 6,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually from Friday building shutdowns. If reductions in greenhouse gases from commuting are included, the state would check the generation of at least 12,000 metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of taking about 2,300 cars off the road for one year.

Aside from the environmental benefits, the state workers seem to like the new arrangement:

“Utah employees actually show decreased health complaints, less stress and fewer sick days,” Wadsworth says, noting previous research finding that fatigue is typically triggered by workdays over 12 hours. Early results from another multicity survey indicate that just 20 percent of respondents said they felt they ate more fast food and only 30 percent said they worked out less. In fact, 30 percent said they exercised more. Anecdotal evidence from Utah also points to an unexpected benefit: increased volunteerism.

Hopefully, Utah’s experience will spur more discussions about non-traditional 9 to 5 work schedules. People’s ability to connect to their workplace and tele-conference regularly are making the traditional work week less and less relevant. I’m a big advocate of flexible schedules and think that more organizations would be wise to consider allowing their employees to set their own work schedules and patterns. In the meantime, though, cheers to Utah for reducing its environmental impact. This will surely make up for its new governor not believing in global warming.

P.S. Full disclosure: I am a native-born Utahn. The answer to your next question is no.

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One Response to “Innovative public policy from the Mountain West: Example 1”

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