By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – One less day of work each week has made a difference for Tupelo’s Public Works Department.
The former Public Works director who initiated the change to a four-day work week nearly three years ago said it boosted employee morale and productivity, dropped energy and fuel costs and trimmed sick leave taken and overtime costs.
But the city plans to return to a five-day work week for Public Works late this month.
After years of study, the city in March 2011 followed a national trend of municipalities using alternative work schedules in some departments to save tax dollars and give employees an extra day off while working the same 40-hour week.
In Mississippi, only Tupelo and Picayune currently use a four-day weekly schedule for any city departments, but many municipalities throughout the country use the change as a creative way to lower costs and still deliver services to the public.
Tupelo’s Public Works Department operates on a Monday through Thursday schedule of 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and it decreased operating costs by more than 10 percent, said Sid Russell, the department’s former director.
The department of about 60 employees saved more than $30,000 annually from employees using less sick time. Russell, who retired in September, said employee morale increased since workers had an extra day to plan things on a day they previously worked.
While employees work the same number of hours with a four-day work schedule as a five-day week, savings occur through fewer daily drive times and less equipment set-up for the department with a 2014 fiscal year budget of $6.4 million.
Some Public Works office staff work on Fridays to answer phones, and an on-call crew responds to emergencies.
“It was really a win-win for everybody,” Russell said recently. “We always had everything covered.”
But the four-day work week will end in three weeks. Public Works employees will work a 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule five days a week.
“This will allow all departments to better plan their workloads and adjust as needed and hopefully provide better service to the community,” a city email announcing the change said.
However, the change will mainly affect Public Works. Nearly all other Tupelo city employees will continue working their current 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule and City Hall’s hours of operations won’t change.
Don Lewis, appointed chief operations officer by Mayor Jason Shelton in October, said he proposed the change “mainly from concern from other departments and myself to see how we could be on the same schedule.”
Lewis, who previously worked as director of Tupelo Parks and Recreation, said the change will provide better service to the public.
“I think the service to the citizens far outweighs the savings received,” Lewis said.
However, Lewis wasn’t aware of any complaints from residents related to Public Works’ schedule.
No formal evaluation took place related to the change. Lewis acknowledges it will likely cause the city to spend more tax dollars on that department.
“The citizens expect that service five days a week,” he said. “It makes the total city operations better when everybody is on roughly the same schedule.”
Shelton said he supports the change.
Lewis said more Public Works employees could assist with events on Fridays, including the Down on Main summer concert series and Tupelo Parks and Recreation events.
Public administration and organizational management experts say mounting evidence shows residents accept changing schedules for nonemergency services such as public works.
“Regardless of the schedule you choose, there are going to be people who prefer that you have some alternative,” said Rex Facer, an associate professor of public finance and management at Brigham Young University who has spent six years researching alternative work schedules for city departments.
Currently, Facer has three ongoing research projects related to four-day work weeks in cities with populations of 20,000 and up. He said data collected from surveys shows increased productivity in four-day work weeks.
“I think it’s very valuable to stop and ask if five-day coverage is necessary,” he said.
Carlos Zepeda, president of a Miami-based organizational management consulting company, said some cities with departments working four days each week choose days other than Monday through Thursday to operate. “Some places work Tuesday through Friday,” he said.
Chuck Williams, interim director of Tupelo Public Works, said he didn’t see an issue with the department’s work schedule changing and believes employees will embrace it.
“There’s one or two that won’t like it, I’m sure,” he said. “But overall, I think it’s going to be a good change for the department.”
Russell said he’s not surprised by plans to change the four-day work schedule. He said he sensed jealousy in other departments and believes his departure and Williams’ appointment as a new interim director provided an opening to return to a five-day work week without resistance, in spite of the demonstrated benefits.
Lewis acknowledged negative comments from employees outside of Public Works but said none of that factored into his recommendation.
Links below are to a January 2012 Tupelo public works document showing reasons the city changed to the four-day work schedule.