Federal Diary Live
Wednesday, February 20, 2008; 12:00 PM
What are the procedures used for closing and reopening the government because of bad weather, such as snowstorms and ice storms? How do officials at the Office of Personnel Management make the decision?
Susan Bryant of the Office of Personnel Management joined The Post's Stephen Barr, who writes the Federal Diary column, to take your questions and comments Wednesday, Feb. 20, at noon ET on Federal Diary Live.
The transcript follows.
Bryant was named director of communications and public liaison at OPM in August 2005, after having served as deputy director of communications for the agency since June 2002. Before joining OPM, Bryant owned a research and communications company for nearly 20 years.
Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today, especially Susan Bryant, who heads up the communications team at the Office of Personnel Management. Susan, this is a timely appearance, because we have a chance for some snow later today in the Washington region. To start this discussion, please walk us through the decision process at OPM when evaluating weather conditions and whether to adjust the federal workday. Thank you for taking the time to respond to Federal Diary readers!
Susan Bryant: OPM has a process honed over many years to assist in the decision-making process for the operating status in the Washington area. I won't go through the details, but suffice it to say we get input from every source available, including local governments, law enforcement officials, weather experts -- and yes, even our back porches. This is a serious decision and foremost, we consider the safety of federal employees and their families. We are, however, the federal government, and we have a responsibility as well to all taxpayers to ensure we are on the jobs we are paid to do.
Washington: The federal government is usually pretty good about opening two hours late, but why is it so reluctant to close early during afternoon weather? As lots of people discovered last week, an evening commute is much harder than a morning one, because in the morning people have the option of staying home or turning around when they see what a mess traffic is. Unless you want to sleep in the office, that luxury doesn't exist for the commute home.
Susan Bryant: Closing early is not as easy as it might seem. We need to notify buses, Metro transit as well as federal employees. Obviously this requires as much lead time as possible. Last week we really didn't get information regarding the seriousness of the weather until close to 3 p.m. That meant we had no lead time, and Metro would have been overwhelmed. We did close on fairly short notice one time last winter because of the seriousness of a quick storm. Local officials had asked us to get federal employees off the road as quickly as possible. We did an early release, and Metro had their hands full. All of our decisions have consequences, and we recognize that. Oftentimes there is no "perfect world" in the government closing business.
Arlington, Va.: Ms. Bryant, why can't OPM do a better job of coordinating the closure of government offices with county decisions to close schools? I think OPM needs to be more family friendly.
Susan Bryant: OPM coordinates through all the local governments. We learn of school closures just minutes before you do, and we think we are quite family friendly ... you often have the option of "unscheduled leave" and sometimes get a "delayed opening" as well. We have the entire Washington area to consider, and that's quite an area. It's a long way from the Charles County, Md., border to the Allegany County, Md. border, from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to West Virginia on the west. Unfortunately, weather doesn't happen equally.
Washington: One day in early 2000, the federal government did not declare itself closed for the day until nearly 8 a.m. My official hours were 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and I and several of my colleagues were already at work at the time the government closed. Most of us stuck around for awhile before heading home, but because our agency requires comp time to be approved in advance, we were in effect working for free on that day. Needless to say, we were not too happy about that! So please don't do it ever again!
Susan Bryant: I often am up most of the night when there is a morning decision to be made. We generally make our decisions in the 3:30 a.m. to 4:15 a.m. time frame. The Director of The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Linda Springer, is very anxious to get you information on the status of government as early as possible. If conditions are such we can make an announcement the night before (even in time for the 10 p.m. news) she will make that decision, but often we cannot make that decision until the very last minute.
Our first notification of that decision is the OPM.gov Web site. The very first announcement goes up on that Web site. We then begin a multiorganization coordinated process that includes changing the phone message on 202-606-1900. Viewers should be aware this phone message sometimes can be difficult to get changed because the phone lines are being used by folks checking the phone message. Expect the phone message to be changed ASAP, but surely within 30 minutes of the decision.
We are at the same time calling all the media in the Washington area -- TV stations, radio stations and newspapers. That includes Baltimore, Annapolis and Fredericksburg among other cities. I've only been at this job since 2002, so I can say "wasn't on my beat," but truthfully, weather is tricky. I do remember storms that surprised even the weather bureau. One other thing ... viewers can sign up for status of government e-mails, which are sent whenever there is a change in status. That's pretty reliable. I get my notice within a short time of the Web site being changed. The place to sign up for the status in government e-mails is this Web site.
Northwest Washington: Given the size of the Washington region, which really goes to West Virginia to Southern Pennsylvania and Delaware for commuters to federal jobs, how do you focus your weather decision for the entirety when only certain regions are impacted?
I live in Maryland, which was fine but wet last week when we had the two-hour delay. Prior times when we had no delay, I had 2 inches of ice to remove. It seems OPM is biased toward the Virginia weather situation.
Susan Bryant: Given that I live near Annapolis, Md., I don't agree ... you have a loud, strong voice for Eastern Maryland.
Silver Spring, Md.: It was great to learn of the "liberal leave" policy of last week after I got to work. Perhaps you could send messages to our BlackBerrys or other mobile device so we can learn of your decision in case we miss it on the Web?
Susan Bryant: It is "unscheduled leave," and you can sign up for an e-mail at the link I just gave you.
Washington: I would love it if you could use your influence to pressure the news channels to somehow permanently leave on the screen the federal schedule in terms of delays, etc. It is maddening to flip from channel to channel to try to catch the announcement in the morning. Because so many private businesses follow the federal schedule, your decision impacts thousands. I know the radio and Internet announces this, but when I'm in my toasty bed flipping channels there is nothing worse than not knowing right away!
Susan Bryant: We are grateful the local media do such a great job in covering all the closing announcements. I'm sure folks in Loudoun County wish their announcement was up full-time too. You can do what I used to do before I had this job ... turn on the radio as well and keep your TV tuned to one channel. Soon enough, you'll see or hear what the operating status of the Federal Government is for the day!
Silver Spring, Md.: I ask this with a smile. As a National Weather Service employee, how reliable have you found the forecast information for our region? What challenges have you found with that info and your decision making?
Susan Bryant: We really appreciate the responsiveness of the National Weather Service. At 1 a.m. they are still pleasant, serious and helpful. We often have been informed when conditions were rapidly changing, and we are most grateful for all of your assistance!
Arlington, Va.: Here's my beef with the snow day policies for the Federal Government: I work in a federal building that is not in downtown Washington, but in the suburbs. Now, I live within walking distance of a Metro, and when I am working downtown I have no trouble getting to my office. But why do I have to risk my life or take my leave to try to get to work in a place because Fairfax (or Montgomery) County still cannot figure out how to plow a road or put down salt? It's dangerous for everyone. I'm perfectly willing to go to work, but there isn't enough consideration of how poorly the local municipalities handle clearing the roads and making arrangements to move people around safely.
Also, with delayed openings "two hours" isn't really the right way to do this -- so many people are heading in at 5 a.m. anyway that it still means people are out clogging the roads when the plows should be out clearing them. The proper way to do it is to say "the federal government will be opening at 11 a.m." (or some other appropriate time) -- encouraging people to all be off the roads while the weather is usually still the worst. If people want to complain about "it's unfair for the people who come into work earlier to get more time off," they can get over it. This is about safety, not free time.
There should be fewer days off, but many more delayed openings in this area. We're just not equipped to handle bad weather with these roads, and because the government has messed around with not expanding Metro for all these years, I don't see why they can't be expected to pay for it in terms of more delayed openings.
Susan Bryant: I can assure you that assembling all the federal workers to show up at the same time is the metropolitan governments' worst nightmare. One of the real advantages we have in this area is the flexibility in arrival and departure times of federal employees. We do not want to overwhelm the transit systems. I grew up in central Illinois, and in spite of all the "snowbirds' " stories about how they knew how to handle bad weather, that flatland faced many weather days with closures. We may not be perfect as we work with such decisions, but I am fairly confident that everyone out there is trying to make the best decision for the most people. And oh, by the way, there have been very few "days off" during my tenure. I am impressed with the stamina of the feds.
Greenbelt, Md.: I'd like to point out that in cases when the government does shut down, sending government employees and contractors back to work before the roads and rails are fully passable is not wise. We're taxpayers too, and shouldn't have to risk ourselves so OPM can score political points with the rest of the country.
Susan Bryant: If a particular area is still not safe to travel for you, that's why we often promote "unscheduled leave." You know better than we do what your personal and family needs are, and there is no "one system fits all."
Washington: My agency officially endorses but subtly discourages teleworking, yet it seems to me that more people working from home has great benefit every rush hour and even more so when there is a weather-related (or other) emergency.
Although I do some work on my own time (and equipment) from home on evenings and weekends, the official policy here is that I can't have an impromptu telework day during a blizzard unless it happens to coincide with a previously scheduled telework day.
Should the federal government, as the region's largest employer, be more flexible with teleworking?
Susan Bryant: We are most encouraging about telework, and recognize its value particularly during bad weather conditions. At the same time, we are working to ensure computer security and Personal Identifiable Information (PII) in this high tech world. There have been several incidents recently in both the private and public world that are worrisome. I know our agency and the General Services Administration (GSA) are looking at more options for telework. Your supervisors and managers can be helpful in this arena too.
Waldorf, Md.: I have to agree with Northwest Washington's comment. I live in Southern Maryland and take a commuter bus to the District. Since I have worked for the federal government, I have been forced to use my own annual leave because the commuter bus that I take is not running. However, on those same days, the federal government is open and the weather is better in Virginia. I do not believe that OPM takes the totality of the metro area and commuting options into account. I for one never have seen commuter buses considered. There appears to be a bias towards how Metrorail is running.
Susan Bryant: I know it may seem we are not considering local commuter services in our decision-making, but they are part of our information-gathering process. We consider them an important part of our decision because they are used by a number of feds.
Kudos to OPM: HI Susan. Let me be the first to say OPM does a great job on notifying the authorities about delayed openings, unscheduled leave, etc.
Years ago you all took beating after beating about how to handle weather closings, and I believe a policy was implemented that simply stated "federal government open on time; unscheduled leave allowed..." (or something to that effect). Employees of the federal government should not expect OPM to offer them a "free day off" because of an impending snowstorm. That's not to say that there aren't times when a Nor'easter is approaching and appropriate action should be taken, but hello fellow employees, save and use your leave for these days.
I don't even know why OPM has to make a decision for the government on delayed openings, early closures, etc. Every federal agency should have the right to do as they please in allowing their employees to use their earned leave.
Coordinating transit schedules (commuter bus, metro, etc) is a nightmare I'm sure. Without fail, someone will be left behind, and when NBC, ABC, CBS or FOX find that lone person standing on 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, they have a field day with it.
So chatters out there, plan your day according to what you think you need to/should do to best suit you/your family -- do not expect OPM to make the decision for you, because no doubt whatever decision they make, you would not be happy with.
Susan Bryant: Thanks for your kind words. We take our responsibility seriously, but also know we're not going to be 100 percent successful in making everyone happy ... we wish we could!
Over here at USDA: Hey chatters, I see a flake outside my office window, time to organize your afternoon transporation needs. Sorry, don't mean to sound so ... hmmm, mean ... but come on folks, "commuting in the D.C. area" has been a nightmare for years, and it's not OPM's fault. It's a combined effort of the tri-state area, transportation venues, and most importantly, safe drivers on the roads.
Here's some advice from Bob Marburg (WTOP's traffic guy) -- slow down, turn your headlights on, use your blinkers and breathe. Spring is right around the corner.
Susan Bryant: Just a side comment: I saw where Brooke Stevens recently died. She used to do the traffic reporting on a local radio station, and she always made me smile with her "There's a snowflake! Abandon your cars now and get every roll of toilet paper you can find!" We'll miss her ability to make us laugh and put things into perspective.
Washington: So, um, why is it "unscheduled leave"? People do have to take unscheduled leave for a variety of reasons -- sick child, emergency at home, well, you name it. "Liberal leave," on the other hand, is in a special category. A special, well-defined category. What's the point of making a confusing situation even more confusing by using a different name?
Susan Bryant: We think we made "unscheduled leave" more flexible for the users by not tying it to any one scheduled event. "Liberal leave" is not a current category; it no longer is used as a term in federal leave.
Arlington, Va.: I would just like to commend you and urge the continued use of unscheduled leave whenever possible instead of delayed openings or closings. Why should the federal government close when many of its employees can get to work by Metro or mass transit? Why shouldn't all of the telecommuters work on those days? It seems that many people just want a day off at the government's expense, and not out of their own leave. Somehow many of those people can make it to the mall or the movies by late morning on snow days. Here's a vote for individual responsibility and choice.
Susan Bryant: Thanks for your commendation. This is a job I have enjoyed and take very seriously ... so when you hear the next announcement from us, please know you're talking to a real veteran of the weather woes. I won't go into the details, but I once spent a night in the Dwight, Ill., high school gym because of a blinding snowstorm and below zero temperatures. I wasn't very happy then, but I was most grateful to those who were taking care of me. Director Springer puts the safety of the federal employee as her highest priority, and our goal is to give you the operating status of government as quickly as possible. If you're not familiar with the site, go here. And thanks to Steve Barr, who puts up with all of us and our weather anxieties!
Stephen Barr: We've run out of time today. Thanks to all who sent in questions and comments. We will be back here at noon next Wednesday. Please join us then!
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