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Federal Diary

Acting OPM Chief Defends Deciding to Open, Then Close, Government

By Stephen Barr
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page B02

Snow days are tricky days at the Office of Personnel Management.

At 4 a.m. yesterday, Dan G. Blair, OPM acting director, made the call to keep government offices open. By 1:15 p.m., he had made the call to dismiss federal employees two hours early.

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"I wish it was a pure science, but it is not," Blair said. "It's always a best guesstimate."

Washington weather has long frustrated the heads of OPM, and yesterday was Blair's first big snow event since Kay Coles James resigned as director on Jan. 31. Blair said he tried to balance competing priorities -- looking out for the safety of federal employees and keeping the government open for business.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), however, believes OPM should have gone with an unscheduled leave policy for the day, Davis spokesman David Marin said.

Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, appreciates that OPM is in a no-win position on snow days and that many roads were in good shape for the morning rush hour, Marin said. The Fairfax Republican supported the early dismissal decision, in hopes it would ease the evening rush hour, Marin said.

"But Davis still thinks OPM made a 'flaky' call today; liberal leave would have been more appropriate and consistent with actions around the D.C. area," Marin said in an e-mail.

"Given that school districts across the region closed, OPM's decision doesn't send a very family friendly message. Parents shouldn't have to choose between reporting to work 'as expected' (the wording on OPM's Web site) and taking care of their children," Marin said.

OPM's communications director, Scott Hatch, joined in a regional conference call about 1 a.m. to hear the National Weather Service's latest forecast and road reports from state transportation departments. He relayed the information to Blair at 4 a.m., who decided to open the government but asked aides to stay on top of the storm's impact.

Because many federal employees are in the office as early as 6:30 a.m., OPM tries to make its weather calls by 4 a.m. to get the word out to early commuters.

"At the time we made the decision at 4 a.m., we had not been told that any of the schools had been shut down," Blair said.

Blair described his decision as "a balancing of the equities." When the government permits unscheduled leave, 40 percent to 50 percent of the area's federal employees take a vacation day, "and that can be extremely disruptive to agency operations," he said.

"The work of government is extremely important," Blair said, adding that "we needed to have more severe weather than what we saw this morning" to justify "sending the message that attendance is optional."

With 350,000 federal employees in the Washington area, Hatch said, a half-day of work translates to more than 1 million hours of productivity in local federal offices. And OPM estimates that shutting down the government for a day in the D.C. area costs $89.9 million.

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