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Economy drives extreme commutes

3:55 PM, Aug 16, 2012   |    comments
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Charisse Jones
USA Today

Becky Casey rises early on Mondays to get to the office. She has to. Her commute - one she makes nearly every week - is more than 700 miles.

Casey leaves her home in the Chicago suburb of Glenview at 4:30 a.m. CT for a 6 a.m. flight out of O'Hare. At 9 a.m. ET, the plane touches down at New York's LaGuardia. Most weeks, this is her commuting life.

"You can usually be walking into the office by 9:30," says Casey, 48, director of national sales for the Denihan Hospitality Group. "Some people do this by sitting on a train for two hours. I sit on a plane for two hours."

Call them extreme commuters: Corporate trekkers such as Casey, who hop a jet each week, call a hotel room or part-time apartment home and see their families on weekends. Or there's the daily-grind version: Workers who hit the road before sunrise and spend almost as much time getting to and from the office - five days a week - as they spend behind their desks.

The number of Americans with marathon commutes is on the rise, particularly following a debilitating recession that has pummeled employment and the housing sector, a recent report on the nation's "super commuting" trend finds.

"What's really driving this is the economy," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation and co-author of the report with Carson Qing. "We have people locked into current housing because it's hard to sell and even harder to buy. ... You're not uprooting the family because you don't know how long the job will last."

For years, the freeways and tunnels around economic centers such as Los Angeles and New York have been jammed with commuters seeking financial opportunities in those hubs but who choose to live in often less-expensive communities an hour or so away. But in the past decade, long-distance commutes of at least 90 miles have become more common across the USA, Moss says.

"People have been commuting distances for a long time," Moss says. The shift, he says, is "the remarkable growth of this across the country."

Among those working in the core counties of the nation's 10 largest metropolitan areas, the number of "super commuters" - defined in the NYU report as someone commuting from outside the combined metro area, usually at least 90 miles away - grew by 2.1% between 2009 and 2010, the last year for which data was available.

Texas has the lion's share of long-distance trekkers, with 13% of workers in both Dallas and Harris counties (which includes Houston) doing such commutes in 2010, according to the NYU report. For those commuters, Southwest Airlines is often the transportation of choice.

"We have heard anecdotally that folks do use Southwest to commute to (and) from work, either on a daily basis or a weekly basis," says Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz, noting that such commutes are usually short hops between cities such as Dallas and Austin.

The long-distance trend is also showing up in the nation's hotels. Phil Baxter, general manager of the Four Points by Sheraton Los Angeles International Airport says in the past decade, his hotel has seen a 5% increase in the number of guests traveling there from cities such as San Diego, roughly 100 miles away.

Others travel much farther.

Mary Meduski, executive vice president and chief financial officer for cable operatorCequel Communications, flies from Philadelphia or Newark on Mondays to work at her company's headquarters in St. Louis. Thursday nights, she's back home in Princeton Junction, N.J.

"We certainly did consider moving," says Meduski, 54. But she says she and her husband, Mike, have been reluctant to move their two children away from a community that's full of friends and relatives.

"Most of my family support (is) within 10 square miles of where I live," she says. "I also have a very accommodating boss who believes if you get the job done, he's willing to work with how you're going to get it done."

The housing crunch

Companies have become more flexible in accommodating employees' personal needs and economic constraints, hiring and transportation analysts say. Rapid developments in technology have helped.

In the first three months of 2012, the most recent information available, nearly a quarter of U.S. homeowners owed more on their homes than the properties were worth, according to CoreLogic. And since the financial collapse of 2008, it's become harder for potential buyers to get financing.

Such realities are leading a growing number of workers to stay put and take on longer commutes, and more employers to accept such arrangements, says Richard Marshall, a global managing director for the executive search firm, Korn /Ferry International.

"If they have to help them relocate, to get them out of a real estate deal, it can be a very costly transition," Marshall says of companies pursuing particular hires. "I think the dynamics of the marketplace have changed so that candidates are needing to be more flexible. And I think companies are, as well."

When Stacey Symonds, 41, took a job at travel site Orbitz two years ago, she traded in a 40-minute commute each way for a 3.5-hour drive and train ride from her home in Madison, Wis., to her Chicago office.

"I've read more books on my Kindle in the past two years than I probably have in the last 10," Symonds says of the time she spends on trains.

She and her husband hung out a for-sale sign in July 2010. "We put our house on the market with all intentions to move," she says. But after nine months and dropping the price four times, there were no takers.

They plan to try again when the housing market improves. In the meantime, Symonds leaves home Sunday or early Monday and returns at the end of the week. The commute has its challenges, she says.

"I feel terrible I'm away from my kids a few days a week," says Symonds, whose two children Sadie and Lev are 7 and 4, respectively. But, she says, "on the plus side, I have flexibility. I can get back to Madison if I need to for a parent-teacher conference."

When Symonds needs to work from home, she can access her company's network remotely.

Developments in technology - from wireless Internet access on planes and trains to Skype, smartphones and teleconferencing - have enabled super-commuting, says Moss, the NYU researcher.

"Travel is now work time," Moss says. For some, he says, "the whole drive is returning phone calls."

Technology feeds the trend

Scott Way, a business analyst from Noblesville, Ind., says he's tapping into the new technology more than he ever imagined. But it's not necessarily for work. Instead, he texts and uses Skype to keep in touch with his wife, Debbie, and their sons during the days he works in Pittsburgh.

Way's weekly 12-hour round-trip treks began three months ago, when he accepted a job more than 300 miles away.

"It provided a livable wage, so I took it," says Way, who was laid off from his previous job in January. "It's not ideal. I've traveled for business in the past, certainly not all week, every week, but we felt like this was really the best situation. ... We got to that bird-in-the-hand point where we just did not have an option financially."

Way's home is worth less than he and his wife paid for it, and they are also reluctant to move before their 16-year-old son, Elijah, finishes high school. Way leaves home on Sunday, shares a house with graduate students during the week, and drives home on Friday.

He doesn't ask his company for help paying his rent or for the gas he burns commuting. "I have a great boss," Way says, "but ... I really don't feel justified in asking for anything like that because again, I'm just happy to have the job."

While some marathon commuters have little choice, others endure long-distance commutes because they're reluctant to tear their families away from familiar schools and neighborhoods for a job that might not last in an unpredictable economy, Moss says.

"There's been a kind of a profound change in Americans' attitude toward the workplace," Moss says. "It's putting the family first, not the job first. ... The home is the oasis, the only source of stability in an economy that is in turmoil, in which you're never sure where you're working, who you're working for or how long you'll be working."

It might also be difficult for two working spouses to both find satisfactory jobs in the same market. "That's led to a long-distance commute for the person who can't find that job in the region," Moss says.

A short-term fix

But these grueling commutes that help a family's bottom line can create tensions and difficulties elsewhere.

Wen-Jui Han, a professor in New York University's Silver School of Social Work, says people who commute 90 minutes or more usually deal with a long work day or an untypical work schedule.

"Non-standard work hours tend to take physical, sociological and psychological tolls on individual workers," Han says. That can include fatigue, even depression, she says.

It follows, some hiring experts say, that such long-distance commutes tend to be merely short-term solutions.

"I don't think anyone signs up for a super-commute who says, 'This is (for) the rest of my life,' " says Chad Oakley, president of Charles Aris, an executive search consultancy.

Instead, he says, these workers think, "As soon as the housing market turns around and I can sell my house and move, or as soon as the job market picks up and there's higher demand for people like me, I'm going to reduce the super-commute."

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