Federal leave policy for severe weather is revised

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 11:13 PM

The Obama administration is mandating that the government allow more federal employees to telework during severe weather, and on Wednesday announced changes to its leave policy.

The biggest change: The work status once known as "unscheduled leave" is now "open with unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework."

"The idea is pretty simple, pretty straightforward: If you can't get to the office, you can still work from home," said Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry, who is responsible for deciding when federal offices in the Washington area need to close, including when to dismiss workers early because of severe weather or other emergencies.

The revamping of the federal leave policy aims to accommodate the thousands of federal employees in the Washington area who must report for work regardless of weather conditions. The changes take into account a new federal law requiring the wider use of teleworking.

Officials with the OPM, the National Weather Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and regional and state government offices announced the changes Wednesday morning.

"It's a lot more than me just looking out the window in the morning," Berry said.

Passage of the Telework Enhancement Act permitted the change. Obama signed the bill last week. It requires federal agencies to establish telework policies and designate a senior official to oversee the work option.

"President Obama stated clearly that our goal is that our government should never close," Berry said, noting that adding telework to the unscheduled leave policy should help enforce its use and keep the government operating at an almost-normal pace.

Officials also decided to rename the status known as "closed" to "closed to the public," because federal workers are still on the job even when offices are closed to the public. Many of the employees, most of whom work for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, often sleep on cots in the hallways to ensure the continuity of government operations, Berry said.

The director's decisions on the work schedule officially apply to about 285,000 employees working at federal offices within the Beltway, but local jurisdictions, schools, universities and private employers often follow the government's status. Federal building managers at sites just beyond the Beltway may alter the work schedule as necessary, depending on local weather conditions, Berry said.

The temperature has plummeted in recent days and snow flurries have been seen across the Washington region, but forecasters said they do not anticipate snowfall totals similar to those during last winter's major storms, dubbed "Snowmaggedon."

"It's not to say that we're not going to get our snow or our cold blasts, but I think once we average the whole winter in hindsight, I think we'll have a much less snowier winter," said Christopher Strong, chief regional meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

La Nina weather patterns should bring cooler-than-normal waters to the Pacific Ocean, putting less heat in the atmosphere over the continental United States, he said. The change means the Washington area will have more days with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, less snow and probably more ice. The Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang anticipates much the same.

Last winter's snow totals forced federal offices to close for five days in January and February, costing between $70 million and $100 million a day in lost worker productivity, according to government estimates.

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