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Gas prices rise as people return to the office — and their commute

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

Consider it poor timing. Gas prices have spiked just as two years of working from home are coming to an end for many Americans, which means commuting back to work might cost more.

NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's 5 o'clock on a weeknight, and this Shell station in Washington, D.C. is a traffic jam - cars lined up for gas, drivers impatient to get where they're going. The price here - 4.15 gallon for regular, a dime less if you pay cash.

STEPHANIE NGUYEN: It went from being about $35 to fill up my tank, and now it's 45.

HSU: Stephanie Nguyen works in Baltimore. She's an attorney. She took the job in the pandemic and had been fully remote until two weeks ago. Now her commute is about an hour door to door.

NGUYEN: Yeah, it's a pain. I used to only have to get gas maybe once a month, and now I have to get gas every week.

HSU: I try to ask her how it's going, if she's happy finally being in the office.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

NGUYEN: Yes. But I think I'm pissing off...

HSU: The guy behind her who wants to get to the pump.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE STARTING)

HSU: Law firms, tech companies, financial institutions - they're all moving forward with their return-to-office plans. I got in touch with big corporations like Wells Fargo, Ford and Microsoft. They haven't changed their plans based on gas prices. President Biden has made going back a national priority, mentioning it in the State of the Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people. People working from home can feel safe and begin to return to their offices.

HSU: But amid sky-high gas prices, people are asking, really, now? Twitter is flooded with comments. We can't afford to drive there, Joe, wrote one user. Yeah, when gas comes back down, buddy, wrote another. According to AAA, average gas prices in the U.S. have toped $4.30 a gallon this week, up 40 cents from last week and double what it was in March 2020, when prices plummeted and a lot of workers got to ditch their commutes.

MATHEW MICHANIE: I had about an hour commute one way.

HSU: Mathew Michanie of Charlotte, N.C. says he never wants to do that again. He worked from home in the pandemic as a business analyst in the IT sector until he got laid off a couple of weeks ago. Now as he looks for a new job, he's not even considering going into an office every day.

MICHANIE: My goal is to be fully remote.

HSU: For this father of two young children and the sole breadwinner for his family, $4 gas just cemented that.

MICHANIE: I feel everything going up, right? You know, you go to the grocery store; costs are all up. Gas is just one of those many things. And it's another straw on the camel's back.

HSU: In New Braunfels, Texas, Greg Perkins has been worried about his employees. He's the owner of Oakridge Bellows. They manufacture metal joints for all kinds of pipes like those used in power plants.

GREG PERKINS: I'm looking up, and I'm seeing the gas prices as I'm driving down the road. And most people - they can't absorb unexpected costs like that.

HSU: So he decided to give his two dozen or so workers, who have no choice but to come on site, $50 gas cards. And he thinks other companies should be doing the same right now.

PERKINS: This really doesn't hit your bottom line like you think it would. If you do it right, it is a morale boost. And that more than compensates.

HSU: Back at the Shell station in D.C., Fran Alfonzo, a grad student in psychology, has just filled up her tank.

FRAN ALFONZO: Thirty-seven eleven - more than I'm used to.

HSU: But she considers herself lucky. The psychology clinic where she's working only requires her to be in person one day a week. Other days she can do telehealth.

ALFONZO: I'm just trying to do my best to not have to drive as much, so it's definitely made an impact. But I'm trying to keep positive (laughter).

HSU: Hopeful words from a psychologist in these trying times - Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.