Personnel Director John Berry acknowledged Thursday that the government’s new snow policy “may create an embarrassment” and could spark criticism if officials send federal workers home unnecessarily. But he said safety is more important.
“There may be a time [a storm] doesn’t arrive,” Berry said at a briefing on the Office of Personnel Management’s new guidelines for when to dismiss Washington area federal workers early — and how early -- if bad weather is approaching.
“We will be accused of overreacting. But the safety of federal employees comes first,” he said.
The new policy, first reported by The Washington Post on Nov. 2, now includes options for staggered departures, immediate departures and sheltering in place for employees who don’t leave their buildings by the deadlines set by OPM.
It’s the first major change in 14 years to the government’s policy for closing down in bad weather or during disasters, and was prompted by a chaotic storm on Jan. 26 that left thousands of commuters trapped in traffic gridlock for hours. Most federal workers, and many others at private companies and nonprofit groups that follow the government on closings, left the office just as snow began falling at rush hour.
The personnel agency is pledging to move up its traditional 4 a.m. announcement about whether the government will close for the day, will open late or will encourage unscheduled leave or telework to the night before if the forecast allows.
But if the weather gets nasty when people already are at the office, federal agencies now have the option of setting a closing deadline. Workers will need to either leave by that time or, in what is hoped will be rare circumstances, be asked to “shelter in place” until the storm passes, roads are passable and the transit system is operating smoothly. No one would be forced to stay at the office, however.
“We do not have police authority or arrest authority” to compel the workforce to leave or stay, Berry said. “This is a shared responsibility.”
Officials also said they’re asking supervisors to give employees more authority to leave the office rather than waiting for the boss to give them the okay. Agencies are also being encouraged to allow their employees to work from home, a policy now adopted by a minority of federal employees.
About 300,000 federal workers are based in the Washington area.
Below are the early dismissal options announced Thursday:
• Staggered early departure: This is the same as current policy, with employees leaving early according to when their shifts end.
• Staggered early departure with a final departure time:OPM would announce that all employees must depart no later than a certain time, when all federal offices will be closed to the public.
• Immediate departure: This would be invoked in cases such as fires, power outages, gas leaks or building damage after an earthquake.
• Shelter in place: This option would be used as a last resort, possibly in a snowstorm but more likely during a tornado or a chemical or biological attack. Employees would not be expected to work if they stayed in the office.