Federal Diary: A flurry of snow days?

By Joe Davidson
Friday, December 4, 2009

Federal employees may have more snow days or early dismissals this winter as the Washington region gears up for a season expected to be colder than normal, with a better chance of big storms.

Government officials outlined the potential closing and early-dismissal scenarios for the Washington region at an Office of Personnel Management briefing Thursday. Officials insisted they will do everything they can to announce closings by 4 a.m. on bad weather days.

"I know that the commute for many people in our region, they start out from faraway places, that commutes have to start early, and I think one of the errors of the past is that we waited too long," said OPM Director John Berry.

He makes the call on closing D.C. area federal offices, and federal executive boards do so in other parts of the country. While safety is the primary concern, money also is an important part of the calculation on closing the government. Berry said the government loses about $100 million in productivity and opportunity costs each time it closes D.C. area offices.

"It's not an insignificant number. We do not make this decision lightly," he added.

The last time the federal government shut down D.C area offices was in early 2003, when a blizzard crippled the region for days.

This year, the mid-Atlantic can expect a colder winter and a higher likelihood of big winter storms, thanks in part to El NiƱo, the weather phenomenon that warms the Gulf of Mexico and causes rainier winters in the southern United States.

"That basically means we have more seeds for these big wintertime blizzards to affect the Washington region," said Christopher Strong, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service's Washington-Baltimore regional offices.

When bad weather strikes, OPM officials consult the weather forecasts and coordinate with officials at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Decisions sometimes can be made in time for late newscasts the night before. Other times, officials hold a conference call around 3:30 a.m. That call is followed by another one with senior OPM staff around 3:50 a.m., at which point the OPM director can make a decision involving five options:

1. Keep the government open.

2. Grant unscheduled or liberal leave to employees.

3. Permit a delayed arrival, usually no more than two hours.

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