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Coping with 4 Gas

Commuting programs become more popular as employers look to help workersAs gas prices hover near $4 per gallon, an increasing number of New Jersey companies are introducing or expanding programs designed to help employees cope with commuting costs. Details differ from firm to firm, but overall goals are similar: get more employees into fewer vehicles.

“In the past we’ve had some programs that encouraged car pooling and other alternatives, but as gas prices have climbed we’re ratcheting up our efforts,” says Mike Burke, director of environmental occupational health and safety at

Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s research and development center in Piscataway.

The 950-employee facility is trying to get a nearby NJ Transit bus stop reinstated and has added locker rooms with showers for workers who ride bikes to the office. The center also offers mass-transit incentives, telecommuting options and flex hours.

Across the state, sky-high gas prices have contributed to a surge of interest in car pooling and other alternative commuting initiatives, according to transportation program executives. For employees, these and other approaches represent a way

to save some cash, while companies see the programs as a way to retain employees who might otherwise look for jobs closer to home.

“Our Web site is seeing a definite increase in activity, and we’re also seeing a rise in applications for car pools and van pools,” says Donna Allison, executive director of RideWise of Raritan Valley. Her Bridgewater-based regional transportation management association is one of eight such organizations in New Jersey that act as a clearinghouse for commuting information (see box on page 8). “Companies let their em-ployees know about us, and the employees quickly reach out to us.”

The surge in information requests is primarily being driven by steep energy costs, says William Ragozine, executive director of Cross County Connections, a Marlton-based transportation management association.

“But companies also realize that helping their employees to cut commuting costs is also a good way to enhance the employer-employee relationship,” he says. “The good thing is that companies don’t necessarily have to spend their own money on these programs. TMAs like ours function as a kind of clearinghouse, coming to work sites and holding seminars about commuting alternatives, directing companies and employees to state agencies that may help defray the costs of car and van pooling, and helping companies to arrange shuttles and other services with state and local transportation providers.”

Robert Stewart Inc. picks up the $60,000 annual tab for the outside van service it provides for workers commuting from New York City to the company’s Belleville location, says Steven Wishnew, chief operating officer of the manufacturer of ties and other neckwear for men and boys. Nearly one-third of the 50 employees use the van service, Wishnew says.

“We started using the service about eight years ago, when we moved our offices from New York to Bellville, because we wanted to make the commute convenient for our highly skilled employees,” he says. “But with the surge in energy costs, it’s become a big economic benefit for them too.”

Employees who live in New Jersey and join a car pool can also get financial incentives from the state, through the company’s relationship with a local transportation management association, Wishnew notes. Last month Robert Stewart Inc. was one of 256 New Jersey companies recognized by the state Department of Transportation as a “Smart Workplace” that provides commuter benefits for employees.

Some businesses, like the 150-attorney law firm Archer & Greiner PC, focus on mass-transit incentives. Archer & Greiner was also named as a “Smart Workplace” by the state DOT.

When Archer employees shuttle between the firm’s Haddonfield headquarters and its Philadelphia branch, they are given pre-paid Port Authority Transit Corp. fare cards as a way to encourage them to take the high-speed rail service instead of their cars, according to H. Michael Corr, the firm’s chief operating officer.

He says Archer is also a member of Cross County Connections, the designated transportation management association for Camden County. This gives the firm access to Cross County’s traffic alerts, which are distributed by e-mail to Archer staff, enabling them to avoid problem areas, time their commutes and make other adjustments as needed, notes Corr.

At Colgate-Palmolive in Piscataway. the company is encouraging employees to telecommute, or to work flexible hours that let them drive in and leave at off-peak times when local roads are less likely to be congested. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, employees who put in an extra half hour Monday through Thursday can leave after a half day on Friday, adds Burke.

“We’ve also set up facilities where employees who want to cycle to work can park their bikes and take a shower and change,” he says. “Also, employees who choose to take mass transit can pay for their fare with pre-tax dollars, which may reduce their income tax.”

Commuting by bus may soon be an option again for Colgate employees.

“At one time there was an NJ Transit bus stop right in front of our headquarters,” Burke says. “Some time ago that was eliminated, but now we’re trying to get it back.”

These kinds of efforts may do more than just save money for employees, says Sam Rabinowitz, an associate professor of management and associate dean at Rutgers University School of Business at Camden. They can also help a business attract and retain high performing employees.

“Car pooling or taking mass transit can help to reduce an employee’s stress,” says Rabinowitz, who laments the 108-mile round-trip drive he makes from Monroe to Camden four times a week. “So a company that makes it easier to take advantage of an alternate commute may find it has increased its competitive advantage. The employees may also be more productive, since stress can affect a person’s ability to work efficiently.”

Even a dip in oil prices, spurred by a cutback in driving, is not likely to help soon, according to the American Automobile Association.

“We do not anticipate motorists will see relief at the pump anytime soon,” Catherine L. Rossi, manager of public and government affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said in a June 1 announcement. “It takes four to six weeks for the current price of crude oil to reach the gas pumps, which means motorists will see gas prices continue to increase in coming weeks.”

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