Dec. 11, 2008

Flexible hours are win-win in Cornell Trades Shop

Jason Koski/University Photography
Bruce Bush, superintendent of shops in Cornell's PDC department, left, talks with chief shop representative Tim Dorn about the success of the compressed workweek arrangement in which some Cornell trades staff are participating.

It's a win-win arrangement: Workers have more time to spend with their families and on personal interests; supervisors have more motivated staff; and Cornell customers get extended service hours, up to 5 p.m. This is possible because Cornell's Trades Shop has offered workers the opportunity to switch from a traditional five-day workweek to a compressed four-day workweek, with longer daily work hours -- 10 instead of eight. This "4/10" option emerged from months of negotiation between Cornell and the trade unions; 48 out of 152 full-time employees volunteered for the compressed workweek arrangement, and 39 were placed on a four-day workweek. Three months later, in spite of the current economic downturn and its effects on Cornell's trades, enthusiasm for 4/10 remains high.

Says Tim Dorn, chief shop representative, "All reports from workers are that they are really happy. They've worked it out among themselves to make sure everyone isn't taking the same day off."

Negotiations with the seven different unions began in the spring of 2008, in keeping with other work that the university has been doing to promote the well-being of a diverse workforce and to implement flexible work arrangements across campus (see related article below). Working out the details took time because some contracts are more flexible and amenable to change than others. In late July, Cornell's Office of Staff and Labor Relations and the Building Trades Council signed a side letter of agreement, providing the flexible work option on a voluntary basis. "In the end, we got the full cooperation of the unions," says Bruce Bush, superintendent of shops in Cornell's Project, Design and Construction (PDC) department.

"Operating totally as an enterprise unit, Cornell's facilities division provides both construction and maintenance services, so we worked with our customer, the university, to assure adequate coverage," Bush says. "Now, Cornell is getting 10 hours a day for five days, and employees have an opportunity to spend more time with their families."

It took a week or two to get into the new rhythm, says Bush, with some trades staff taking Mondays off, some Wednesdays and others Fridays.

Bush explained that there are some circumstances in which the 4/10 arrangement does not work. For example, there are no 4/10s in Campus Life Facilities, where work has to be done before 5 p.m., when the students return to their rooms. Situations in which a journey person works with an apprentice also do not lend themselves to the flex arrangement. Some workers have also decided that the 4/10 schedule does not work for them, because the longer days in the summer interfere with their children's activities.

The arrangement best suits project work, such as the Ezra-Net project in which new data and phone cables are being installed in many Cornell offices. "This work was best done after hours, on the third shift, when offices are empty," explains Bush.