The federal government closed its D.C.-area offices early Wednesday morning due to a late-winter storm expected to last through most of the evening.
For anyone with the luxury of killing time on the Internet Wednesday instead of teleworking or dealing with kids who are home from school, here’s a reminder of how the government makes decisions about its operating status.
The head of the Office of Personnel Management — essentially the federal government’s human resources department — makes the final call about whether to close D.C.-area federal offices.
OPM first alerted federal workers of the closing on Wednesday at about 3:30 a.m., using e-mail, texts and the agency’s Web site to put out the message. Berry said he tries to make the decision no later than 4 a.m. because many employees have long commute times and need to know about status changes before leaving early in the morning for work.
OPM’s decisions in these situations are fraught with potential for criticism, as the agency struggles to strike a balance between acting overly cautious and not cautious enough.
In 2010, “Snowmageddon” trapped thousands of drivers in traffic for as long as 12 hours after blizzards covered D.C. area roads starting around rush hour. That event prompted questions about why OPM hadn’t closed federal offices for the day or released employees early from work.
In 2011, OPM added early dismissals to its menu of options for dealing with severe weather. Berry acknowledged at the time that officials might end up sending workers home unnecessarily, but he said safety concerns would trump any chance of embarrassment.
Although little snow accumulated in the district on Wednesday, Berry said he took into account “the best advice and information” from the National Weather Service and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
“At 3 a.m., the [weather service] provided a greater level of confidence in the temperatures, the wind speed, and the snow accumulation calling for 8-10 inches for D.C. and our [Council of Government] colleagues agreed that a government closure would be appropriate for the safety of the workforce and the region,” Berry said.
About one-third of the D.C. region’s 300,000 federal employees still end up working when government offices are closed, with many personnel simply performing their duties from home, according to Berry.
“Employees are working from their mobile devices, logging in from home computers, or reporting for duty as emergency workers,” the director said.
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