Employers Go Extra Mile to Aid (and Keep) Commuters

By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

When it comes to helping workers with their commutes, employers in the region have moved beyond such standbys as subsidized transit passes. They're giving workers vans to drive home, radically loosening telecommuting rules and even paying for walking shoes.

That is what the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found in choosing the winners of its awards for employers that make an extra effort to aid workers with their commutes. Northern Virginia employers took two of the top three prizes.

As traffic congestion worsens and housing costs widen the distance for many between home and office, more employers are recognizing that making it easier, and more affordable, for workers to do their jobs is becoming more important to attract and retain talent, said Nick Ramfos, director of the government council's Commuter Connections program.

And even if employers are acting out of self-interest, it's a welcome trend for the region, Ramfos said, because it helps reduce traffic.

"From a business sense, these employers have latched on to these programs to keep their best and brightest, and we salute them, because it helps our region in terms of congestion and air quality," Ramfos said.

George Mason University won the award for the best incentives for alternative means of commuting. The college gives employees up to $105 a month in transit subsidies and offers free shuttle service between the Vienna Metro station and its Fairfax campus and between the Fairfax and Prince William campuses.

Mason was particularly praised for its vanpool program, under which employees living in the region's farthest reaches use university-owned vans to get to and from work, with as many as eight workers in each van.

About 40 percent of the university's 5,000 employees use either transit or carpools to get to work. The annual costs are $300,000 for the Metro shuttle and $182,000 for the vanpools.

"A lot of people that work here live pretty far away, and we feel pretty strongly about . . . trying to provide employment for those people. These are people with great skills, but because they live that far away it's difficult for them to work" at George Mason, said Lillian C. Arevalo, director of operations on the university's Arlington campus.

Winning the award for the best telecommuting program was the U.S. Postal Service's Office of Inspector General, which employs more than 300 people at its headquarters in Arlington.

In late 2004, the agency started an initiative, Smart Workplace, that made it much easier for employees to do their work -- mostly investigations of fraud and misconduct within the postal service -- without going to the office. The program takes advantage of new technology, such as a centralized call center for employees, and new performance measures that emphasize output rather than attendance.

The agency has yet to compile detailed data on how often employees telecommute, but in its application for the award, it estimated that, on average, employees worked outside of the office, either at home or in the field, 144 days a year -- well more than half their workdays. Not surprisingly, the program has been hugely popular with employees, said Agapi Doulaveris, the agency's director of performance.

"Our philosophy is, 'Do your job in the best place to do your job,' " she said. "We have great technology, and we have the flexibility to realize that coming to the office may be counterproductive based on what you have to do."

The third major award, for the best marketing of alternative commuting options, went to Discovery Communications in Silver Spring. The company, one of Montgomery County's largest, received praise for its electronic postings of commuter-related announcements, the commuter information center it established near the Metro station close to its building and its annual commuter fair.

Ramfos, the Council of Governments official, said he expected more employers to start aggressively promoting and subsidizing alternative commuting options as they realize that not doing so puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

"We're not saying that every employer has to do these things," he said. "But there are some employers who maybe ought to be doing it, because there are other employers hiring their workers away because they're offering these benefits."

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