The Department of Energy will unveil a series of initiatives today to make it easier for many employees to get to work and to help them be less stressed-out once they arrive. The initiatives deal, in part, with the two big C's: children and commuting.

Energy's actions will put pressure on other agencies to get with the program and make their offices more worker- and family-friendly.

The department will nearly double transit subsidies and make its two Washington area day-care centers affordable for many lower-income workers. Another initiative sets up a system to give clerical employees training and encouragement to qualify for promotions and new careers.

The changes are part of an agreement between Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and the National Treasury Employees Union. Richardson held a series of large town hall-type meetings and smaller brown bag lunch sessions with employees to hear their concerns. Few Cabinet officers hold such big events unless they deal with major policy issues and TV cameras are present.

Many top bosses would rather deal with cosmic, win-win issues than listen to gripes from people who work for them. Folks who dwell in six-figure land can find it hard to appreciate the daily struggles subordinates have in finding decent day care--or daily bus fare. But at Energy, things are looking up.

Here's a list of the initiatives:

* The department and the NTEU signed a memorandum of understanding to boost to $65 a month from $33 a month the transit subsidy for employees taking public transportation to work. Many federal agencies provide some kind of financial help to workers who take the bus, subway or commuter train (or, in some cases private bus or van services) to work. But few give employees as much as the new Energy ceiling.

The department's day-care centers (at the Forrestal Building, with 2,600 employees, and in Germantown, with 1,500) are now used mainly by children whose parent or parents make more than $50,000 a year. Now appropriated funds will be made available to offer day-care tuition assistance to lower-income workers. Congress recently authorized agencies to use appropriated funds for that purpose. Energy will be one of the first agencies, if not the first, to take advantage of the change. The department tentatively plans to offer assistance to employees when day-care tuition exceeds 15 percent of salary.

* Richardson has told the department's Office of Management and Administration to work with the NTEU to do more to provide training and promotion opportunities for secretarial and administrative-support employees.

* Workers in Germantown will have access to an exercise facility next spring. Upkeep will be financed in part by gym membership dues that will be collected via payroll deduction.

Such changes are not the sort of thing Cabinet officers generally spend much time on, if any. Many consider a problem solved once it has been discussed and assigned to a committee. But the changes at Energy are not surprising coming from the unorthodox Richardson.

A career employee who was involved in the groundwork said Richardson was "always asking about how things were working out, about legal authority, you name it. He wouldn't let it go away."

While serving in Congress, the New Mexico Democrat took another job: self-appointed hostage negotiator for some Americans held overseas. His personal diplomacy didn't please the White House or the State Department. But he succeeded. And he wound up, to just about everyone's surprise, as ambassador to the United Nations. He's the highest-ranking Hispanic in the administration and is said to be on the short list of vice presidential candidates if Vice President Gore wins the Democratic presidential nomination. After today's announcements, he could win just about any election if Energy Department workers were calling the shots.

Virginia Health Fair Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) is sponsoring a federal health insurance fair from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at Ernst Community Center, Northern Virginia Community College, 8333 Little River Tpk., Annandale. Representatives of various health plans will explain their plans' premiums and benefits.

Also on hand to talk about the federal health insurance program will be Walton Francis, author of the Washington Consumers' Checkbook Guide to Health Insurance Plans for Federal Employees, Bill Smith, of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees, and David Lewis, of the Office of Personnel Management. The health insurance open season, when federal workers and retirees can select health plans for next year, ends Dec. 13.

Freedom for Freed Bill Freed will retire from the Department of Transportation next month after 37 years in government. He started as a Treasury Department clerk, then moved to the Commerce Department before going to Transportation, where he's acting director of human resources management. Friends are planning a Dec. 2 send-off luncheon at Fort McNair. For information, call 202-366-4088.

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

Wednesday, Nov. 17, 1999