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Working in a winter wonderland

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.

4. Permit a combination of unscheduled leave or delayed arrivals.

5. Close the Washington area offices.

In January, President Obama, a longtime Chicago resident much more accustomed to the snow, joked about Washington schools closing because of ice. "We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town," he said at the time.

Now, Berry says Obama believes safety is the only thing that matters.

"The president's been very clear: Make the decision based on public safety, and on public safety alone," Berry said.

The Federal Eye, ably reported by my colleague Ed O'Keefe at washingtonpost.com/federaleye, will post OPM's decisions whenever they are announced.

You can sign up for e-mail alerts from the Eye to ensure you get the latest information about closures and early dismissals.

Contractor use criticized

Even as the Obama administration develops an administration-wide effort to increase the federal employment of veterans, the agency responsible for their welfare is being criticized for giving their jobs to outside contractors.

The American Federation of Government Employees wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to place a moratorium on the use of contractors, who the union says now do the work veterans once did.

The use of outside contractors is widespread in government and organized labor does not object to all of the work they do. But according to a union press release, "the VA -- the agency that strives to be the model employer of veterans -- has contracted out more jobs held by veterans than most other agencies."

Before the Bush administration took office, almost all blue-collar VA jobs, in such areas as housekeeping, laundry, food services, and maintenance of hospitals and cemeteries, were held by vets, but now many of those have been farmed out to contractors, union officials said in a phone interview.

VA officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Last month, the government announced an intensified effort to increase the hiring of vets. Obama issued an executive order creating an interagency council and telling agencies to establish veterans employment plans. They are charged with developing programs to boost the hiring of vets.

An AFGE statement released this week said, "Any plan developed by the Council should address the systemic risk to federal civilian employment of veterans posed by the expanded use of for-profit contractors."

Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this column.

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