No, people aren't quitting their jobs - they're looking to lose the daily commute in favor of teleworking. Also called telecommuting, teleworking is the substitution of telecommunications and computers for work-related travel. The telecommuting movement began more than 30 years ago in Los Angeles when then-rocket scientist Jack Nilles got stuck in an L.A. traffic jam. He spent the rest of his career studying and promoting telework.
Since then, discussion of telework has waxed and waned based on events such as transit strikes and natural disasters. At the same time, the number of teleworkers nationwide has steadily crept upward.
"Telework is ripe for revisiting," said David Sutton, who focuses on alternate forms of commuting as director of Metro Commute Services at Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"Years ago, when the concept was new, computers were expensive, dial-up was all you could get, e-mail wasn't up full gun yet," he said. "But now, technological advances have really taken off and gas prices are certainly making telework relevant again."
Sutton said there are several active telework programs within local government offices, but the overall number of telecommuters within Los Angeles County is about 1 to 5 percent among companies with 250 or more employees.
In a 2002 telework study, the Southern California Association of Governments found that of the 5,000 Los Angeles-area study participants, about 10 percent teleworked part of the time. In one week, they eliminated approximately 45 million miles of travel.
Nationally, studies show that between 2003 and 2004, the number of employed Americans who worked from home at least one day a year increased 7.5 percent, to 44.4 million.
During that time, the number of teleworkers with high-speed Internet capability increased 84 percent, to 8.1 million.
Those numbers might be increasing even more.
The Telework Coalition, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based group that promotes teleworking, has seen interest in the trend spike recently.
"A year ago, we had 25,000 hits on our (Web site)," said John Edwards, co-founder and chairman of the coalition, who teleworks almost exclusively. "(In April) we had just under 300,000. In May we had more than 450,000. There are so many things happening now driving people to look for information on teleworking."
Edwards said the biggest factors in the increased interest in teleworking are the pain at the pump and concerns for business continuity.
"If you had a dirty bomb go off in the middle of D.C., you wouldn't be able to go within the beltway for 35 years," he said. "We're recommending that 20 percent of every organization work from home one day a week, by rotation, so they practice it."
The cost of fossil fuels plays a big part in the renewed interest in teleworking, as does their effect on the environment.
"You can have a significant effect on traffic and air quality even by telecommuting a day or two a week," said Sutton, who teleworks occasionally. "It's a new work paradigm which doesn't have to be utilized every day."
Laguna Hills, Calif., resident Sherry Hsia has been practicing what Edwards and Sutton preach.
She used to get up every workday at 4 a.m. and commute more than 100 miles round-trip to her job at The Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo.
That was before Hsia, the company's senior financial adviser, joined the company's telework program. Now she works about half the workweek from home and the rest of the time takes a commuter van to work.
"For me, the real benefit was time savings," she said. "And I'm actually a lot more productive, because I don't get interrupted as much, and I can really focus."
Employees of Sun Microsystems are combating high fuel costs by telecommuting. More than 15,000 Sun employees, or roughly half of its labor force, participate.
"Sun Microsystems has put into place an innovative flexible work program called Open Work," wrote Meghan O'Driscoll, a Sun spokeswoman, in an e-mail. "Employees are more productive, giving 60 percent of their saved commute time back to the company, and (the program) eases air pollution and gas needs. Sun employees spend less time in the car, lessening the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, and participants save hundreds of dollars on gas per month."
Although more people are being drawn to the idea of teleworking, there are difficulties and drawbacks.
Charlotte Lazar-Morrison , principal director of human resources at The Aerospace Corp., was there when her company set up its program about seven years ago. The program started with about 20 employees and has grown to include about 80.
"A telework program creates additional work for managers, and there are concerns about safety, liability and security (of information)." Lazar-Morrison said. "But I can see the numbers (of teleworkers) increasing mostly because a lot of people can't afford to live here and energy prices going up will affect it as well."
Teleworking may well be called upon by the masses as one answer to rising gas prices, but it may also give rise to a new wave of workaholics.
"People say you have to be a good starter to telework," Edwards said. "What you really need to be is a good stopper. People get sucked into the screen. Often when I go to check my e-mail at 10 o'clock in the evening I'm still there at midnight."
For information on teleworking, go to the Telework Coalition Web site, at telcoa.org.