Tardiness and absenteeism is some federal agencies has jumped a staggering 500 percent or more over the past six working days. Thousands of commuters have slipped, dug, detoured or simply failed to make it to the office.
Officials say the high number of late arrivers and no shows result from the flu bug that is in town and the freakish weather Washington has shared with much of the nation. Since last Friday this city of confusing traffic circles and out-of-towners has been slammed by a major snow storm, an ice storm, thaw, freeze, thaw, floods and high winds.
The weather has created thousands of potholes in roads. It has slowed traffic and disabled cars. Yesterday, many of the 450,000 people who try to pour into government offices between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. also had to cope with fallen trees, power failures and roads that were underwater during morning rush hour.
Spot checks by this column of major federal agencies in the city and suburbs show that all have felt the impact of lost time from the unusually large number of workers coming in late, or calling in sick.
The Department of Transportation said that the number of people coming in from 10 minutes to 40 minutes late this week is two or three times higher than the normal rate for its staff of 10,200.
Because of last Friday's snow, the Veterans Administration said the absenteeism and tardiness was up 500 percent in its big central office (with 3,700 workers), and there was an eight-fold increase in tardiness at the regional office.
Even at the VA hospital, the rate of tardiness and absenteeism was 5 to 6 times greater than normal. VA officials say workers have also had trouble getting to work on time this week, because of the roads and the weather.
Everybody, it seems, has a weather story whether he or she made it to work late or on time. Typical was the Civil Service Commission aide whose car hit a pot hole on the 14th Street Bridge earlier this week. It bent the wheel and blew out the tire, making the employee - along with hundreds of fellow civil servants caught in traffic jams - late Tuesday.
On Monday, the go-go early-bird assistant secretary of a Cabinet department was enraged and embarrassed when he couldn't get off his suburban street. He spent the morning trying to conduct business by telephone and using a shovel to dig a path to the main road.
A Labor Department worker tried to come in early Thursday to beat weather and the traffic. First, she said, she was almost hit by lightning, than a tree fell across the road. She turned around and went home, had second thoughts and make it in about 11 a.m.
Labor Department head-counters said they had no hard figures on how many workers were late or absent during the past week, but that many employees were reporting in from 30 minutes to an hour late, most of them coming from homes in Maryland.
U.S. Information Agency said it has had little trouble with employees being late because most of its 4,000 workers are on flexitime schedules. That means they can come in as late as 9:30 a.m. and still work a full 8 hour day without losing leave time or being considered late.
Two top personnel officials who normally keep tabs on absences and late arrivals couldn't tabulate data yesterday because they were late for work. A public information specialist specializing in manpower had to take the day off because Route 50 was flooded when she tried to get to work.
Reactions as to how agencies handle tardy workers (forgiving them, or docking them) varied. A Labor Department supervisor said it is "a rare supervisor who cracks down" in situations like the one this week. "It is hard for me to land on everybody else when I'm late," he said.
On the other hand, a General Services Administration official said "I'm tough about people coming in late, and nobody is late here." He pointed out that GSA boss Jay Solomon walks to work, and that his deputy Robert Griffin "is the kind that would get here on time if there was 12 feet of snow on the ground." Nevertheless, a GSA aide who begged not to be quoted said the problem of late arrivals was "substantial" this week.
Nobody can put a dollar figure on the price of lost time but it could be substantial since the average federal white collar workers here earns $9.66 a hour.