There's one guaranteed loser on a snow day -- the director of the Office of Personnel Management.

With that job comes the responsibility for deciding when weather and other emergency conditions warrant shutting down the government.

Yesterday, OPM Director Kay Coles James decided to keep federal offices here open but also allow nonessential or non-emergency employees, as they're known, to decide for themselves whether to take a vacation day and stay home.

Not a popular decision to make, especially when forecasters are predicting a substantial snowfall, schools are closing and police are urging motorists to stay off the roadways.

A number of employees left messages on the Federal Diary's voice mail questioning why OPM would want any employees commuting in what one called "dangerous conditions." Others questioned whether anything productive happened in federal offices, because so many people took the day off.

Asked how James reached her decision, OPM spokesman Scott Hatch said, "The overriding factors were to make sure the federal government of the United States of America remained effective while providing sensitivity for federal workers to do what is best in their circumstances."

James chose to offer "unscheduled leave," which allows employees to take leave time without prior notice to a supervisor, Hatch said. Under that approach, for example, parents may stay home with children, employees with lengthy commutes can avoid risky roads and employees can opt to work only part of the day.

"We didn't want to put anyone at risk," he said.

Hatch pointed out that the last time that federal offices in the Washington area closed because of weather was Jan. 25-26, 2000, when 9.3 inches fell at Reagan National Airport, 10.3 inches at Dulles and 14.9 inches in Baltimore.

That was the government's first weather closure since the blizzard of 1996. The government shut down for four days in January of that year, when 17.1 inches of snow paralyzed the city.

This time, weather forecasts did not call for a big-time snowstorm, Hatch said. "It takes a lot more than four or five inches to shut down the federal government," he said.

OPM's decision-making process began at 3 a.m. yesterday, when federal, state and local officials, joined by school superintendents, forecasters and highway officials, dialed into a conference call.

Highway officials reported road sensors showed surface temperatures at or below the freezing point. The National Weather Service outlined the storm's path and gave snowfall estimates.

Hatch, who participated in the conference call, later spoke with D.C. officials. After making "some independent [phone] calls," Hatch briefed James. She decided to keep the government open, and OPM posted the announcement on its Internet site at 4:45 a.m.

In some respects, Hatch said, yesterday's decision was in keeping with other unpredictable events. Last year, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the government remained open but allowed employees to use leave time to stay home with children or deal with any stress. The sniper attacks this autumn led some employees to call for a regional shutdown, but federal offices stayed open.

"You are never going to make everybody happy, and there will always be people who are inconvenienced," Hatch said.

Savings Plan Contributions President Bush has signed legislation to allow some older employees to make "catch-up" contributions to the Thrift Savings Plan.

The legislation provides an opportunity for persons who are age 50 or older to make an extra pre-tax contribution to TSP over and above the maximum annual contribution amount. To take advantage of the new law, employees need to ensure they are maxing out on their TSP contributions. TSP participants can adjust their contributions during the plan's current open season, which ends Dec. 31.

The catch-up contributions (up to $2,000 in 2003) will be made through payroll deductions. TSP is surveying federal agencies to see when they can reprogram their payroll systems to capture catch-up contributions, a spokesman said. An announcement will be made as soon as possible, he said.

TSP funds that track stock indexes posted gains in the month of November, the plan reported this week. The popular C Fund, which mirrors the S&P 500 stock index, gained 5.87 percent during the month. The C Fund, however, is down 16.48 percent over the last 12 months.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.