Budget crisis fuels shorter week debate

For the past year, the union representing state employees has lobbied Gov. John Lynch for a four-day workweek. Now they’re using the state’s fiscal woes as leverage to move this idea forward.

“We believe that delivering New Hampshire state services with a four-day workweek is a great way and easy place to save New Hampshire taxpayers money,” union officials said in a statement.

State union employees are proposing a Monday-through-Thursday workweek with 10-hour days and the closure of state offices on Friday, which they say already has low business demand.

They argue that a four-day workweek reduces energy bills, cuts back on absenteeism and gives the public more convenient access to services through extended daily hours.

“You’d have more time to get out of work and go to the DMV or someplace else,” said Jay Ward, political director for the State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire. “We also think it’s more economical in productivity.”

Lynch said last summer, while campaigning for re-election, that he would consider a four-day workweek. But he seems less enthused about the idea these days, as the state struggles with a budget gap far beyond what a shortened week could solve.

“Unless the union is willing to agree to furloughs, there are not significant cost savings achieved from a four-day workweek if we are paying them for five days,” said his spokesman, Colin Manning, in an e-mail message.

Furloughs, or mandatory unpaid time off, have been proposed by lawmakers as one of a myriad of ways to save money, but union officials would have to agree to them. The state has already enacted a hiring freeze.

The four-day-week concept has picked up steam nationally in light of the recession, budget problems in cities and states across the country and rising energy costs.

Last fall, Utah became the first state government in the nation to adopt a four-day workweek, and the experiment has since attracted interest from other states trying to ease their financial problems.

“Why? Three words: Massive. Budget. Deficit,” state Rep. Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from New York, told the Associated Press in March.

He estimated that state would save $30 million by switching to a four-day week.

Utah switched to a four-day week primarily to save money on electricity, gasoline and other energy expenses. State officials hoped the move would save $3 million a year in energy costs. The change affected 17,000 state employees, who now work 10 hours per day, four days a week.

There are no hard numbers yet on how much New Hampshire would save by shutting down state offices on Friday, but Ward said he assumes it would be “substantial.”

The proposal affects most of the 10,000 state employees represented by the union, but not all, Ward said.

Some jobs, such as plow truck drivers in the winter, simply cannot operate on a four-day schedule.

Ward said he’s hopeful that the proposal will get more widespread attention now that money is such a hot issue in New Hampshire.

“We do think this is a good idea that needs to be investigated,” he said. “If it’s investigated because of the crisis, then so be it.”