Prompted no doubt by the heat wave, two old-time federal workers, Roger and Fran, wrote to ask whatever happened to the good old "Misery Index." They remember it fondly, they think, from when they were young and just starting what would turn out to be long, and rather distinguished, careers.

The Misery Index was part thermometer, part bulb, part bureaucratic infernal device. It rescued thousands of civil servants from hotbox offices in the good old summertimes of long ago. The index was invented in the late 1940s, and it lasted 20 or 30 years until it was killed off by air conditioning.

During its working lifespan, the Misery Index's ups and downs were, quite literally, a hot topic in federal offices. Especially from June through September, the period when many civil servants here worked in steam-bath conditions.

The index was born--and served--in the era before air conditioning became almost universal. There was a time when the only working air-conditioning units in some federal agencies happened to be in offices occupied by top staff. Workers could be frying eggs on the sidewalk, or on their desks, while the bosses kept cool.

Working stiffs had to make do with fans (some illegally brought in from home) or by constantly adjusting windows that--in the olden days--opened.

The index was a measuring device, a combination of indoor temperature and humidity readings. Once it hit certain levels--based on official readings--in an indoor federal office, the surviving occupants could be sent home for the day. The measuring equipment was supplied by the General Services Administration. Trained agency personnel could check out offices where workers alleged they were being pan-fried to see whether things were miserable enough to warrant freedom with pay.

If the official internal readings hit certain levels--which are tougher to get indoors than you might suppose--employees could be sent home early. It happened many times, over many years, in many offices. The widespread installation of air conditioning (when it works) made the index obsolete years ago.

But folks with long memories remember the good old (and hot) days when the index was king. Federal agencies still have the authority to release workers early, for heat or weather emergencies. But the days of trained personnel poking bulbous devices and thermometers into selected government hot spots is over.

For the benefit of old-timers who recall the index, and for newcomers who were born into an air-conditioned world, here's the old Misery Index. Back then, you could be sent home early if the official indoor readings in your office hit these combinations:

Temperature, 95. Humidity, 55.

Temperature, 96. Humidity, 52.

Temperature, 97. Humidity, 49.

Temperature, 98. Humidity, 45.

Temperature, 99. Humidity, 42.

Temperature, 100. Humidity 38.

Dual Compensation

Congress is considering a proposal to eliminate the so-called dual compensation law. It prevents retired regular (but not reserve) officers who take civil service jobs from drawing full government salary and retired military pay. Currently about 6,000 military retirees are hit by the dual compensation law. It requires them to give up half of any retired military pay in excess of $10,450 if they take a civil service job. Similar rules apply to some retired regulars who take jobs--like teaching--with some state governments.

In April, the Senate approved a repeal of the dual compensation act as part of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines Bill of Rights Act of 1999. But the best chance for repeal--as part of the defense authorization bill--rests with Senate-House conferees when they iron out differences in their authorization plans.

Money Counts

The Office of Personnel Management is sponsoring a Sept. 8-9 conference on "Strategic Compensation: Improving Results Through Effective Pay, Classification and Performance Management." Bottom line for the that's-a-mouthful conference is Uncle Sam's eternal search for ways to reward the best and brightest and to nudge poor performers to shape up. The session is open to federal managers and human resources professionals. It will be at Alexandria's Hilton Mark Center. For details, call 202-606-8486.

Telework Center

Federal and Virginia state officials will dedicate the area's newest "telework station" at 10 a.m. today in Woodbridge. Like other telework centers, this one will have workstations with personal computers and Internet hookups where people can work away from home without going to the office. The Woodbridge facility, at 13546 Minnieville Rd. (Dominion Center), will be in a secure building and open 24 hours a day.

The General Services Administration contact is Gary Caruso at 202-260-4227.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com

Monday, July 26, 1999