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Companies Help Workers Cope With Gas Price Spike

With gas prices at record highs across the country, some employers are implementing measures to help their employees ease the cost of driving to work.

A recent survey found that 57 percent of employers are offering some kind of help, according to employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"They can’t afford to lose employees that are stuck with the high price of commuting," says Challenger, Gray & Christmas CEO John Challenger.

The average price of a gallon of gasoline this week reached $3.94, according to the American Automobile Association, and some energy expects are predicting a move above $4.00 at some point in the summer driving season

Employers are finding different ways to help out. A survey of 553 human resource professionals conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found the most popular benefit was a flexible work schedule (26%), followed by telecommuting (18%), public transportation discounts (14%) and gas cards (14%).

Take Principal Financial Group , for example. Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, the financial services company offers employees free bus rides to and from work with the local transit authority.

Similarly, the University of Richmond recently began offering employees free bus rides six weeks ago. Some 110 employees have already signed up.

Sun Microsystems has its Open Work program, originally devised ten years ago to increase productivity, to help with the rising cost of getting to work.

The program allows employees to work from home whenever they wish. The company says that 54% of its employees participate in the program with the average employee saving $2,000 a year on gasoline. Ann Bamesberger, VP of Open Work Services at Sun, says the program is the "number one retention tool."

Some transportation companies are profiting from the situation.

Enterprise RideShare, a California-based subsidiary of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, says interest in its vanpool service has doubled in recent months.

"People who haven’t tried vanpooling before" are suddenly signing up for the service, says Connie McGee, group manager at RideShare.

RideShare allows a group of employees to use a van to drive to work, costing each one of them about $140-$170 each a month. Employers can subsidize the service for their workers.

The spike in gasoline prices is clearly affecting behavior. The Department of Transportation this week said that Americans drove 11 billion less miles this March then a year ago, the largest annual decline on record. A good part of this is leisure driving, which is discretionary, unlike the daily commute to work.

For employees who are struggling to pay for their commute and are not getting support from their employer, experts suggest asking for help.

Deborah Keary, an HR director at the Society for Human Resource Management, says employees who decide to ask for help should not simply complain about gas prices but "suggest a plan," such as the creation of company-sponsored carpools.

It is important for companies "to acknowledge gas prices and the economy," and the effect on employees, says Keary. Helping them with the cost of gas shows "that you’re a good employer, and they're going to stay with you."

Questions, Comments: joseph.pisani@nbcuni.com

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