OPM rolls out changes to snow policy

Thursday - 12/1/2011, 1:03pm EST

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Emily Kopp & Michael O'Connell
Federal News Radio

The Office of Personnel Management has rolled out a new set of Washington-area emergency dismissal and closure notifications aimed at preventing a repeat of last winter's "Snowmaggeddon."

The fast and furious snowfall trapped drivers on the streets and quickly turned into "Commute-a-geddon," said National Weather Service Science and Operations Officer Steven Zubrick at a Thursday briefing announcing the policy changes.

OPM Director John Berry said his agency would strive to make closure decisions earlier than in the past. "This may create an embarrassment" and lead to accusations of "overreacting," Berry said, but added, "Safety first is our decision here."

He said lessons learned from "Snowmaggedon" and August's earthquake informed the policy changes.

"An earthquake is different from a snowstorm at night, as well as a snowstorm in the middle of the work day, and each must be handled differently," he said.

New options for daytime emergencies

  • Staggered early departure - This is used when OPM determines that for safety reasons federal employees need to leave earlier than normal. OPM will alert employees how many hours before their normal departure time they should leave.
    • Employees should stagger their departures based on when they arrived at work. They will be granted excused absence for the time after they leave.
    • Employees who leave before their staggered departure time must take unscheduled leave and will not be granted excused absence.

  • Staggered early departure with a final departure time - This option forces federal employees to leave the office by a specific time. Under this option, staggered departure times are still used. But, at the final departure time, all remaining federal employees would be dismissed.

  • Immediate departure - OPM views this option as a last resort that would only be used in extreme cases and in coordination with public safety officials.
The last option requires employees to plan for a worst-case scenario, Berry said.

"I do not want to sit here and say the region is immediately able to respond to that option at this time. We know we would face gridlock," he said. "It may be the safest way out of the city is on foot."

The policy adds a fourth "shelter-in-place" option for emergency employees and others who have not left work early. It could also be used in rare situations like tornadoes.

All federal employees are issued survival kits with a day's worth of emergency supplies. Berry said those could be used under "shelter-in-place" conditions. He showed reporters an insulated orange bag containing packets of water, dried food and a whistle.

But he said OPM would issue a shelter-in-place advisory only when "the safest choice may not be just to get in your car and run, or run out of the building," and only after consulting with law enforcement, emergency management officials, the White House and the D.C. mayor.

"It would only be used in a snow emergency if it were a totally unpredictable event," he said, and then for hours rather than overnight. "I'd rather have people warm and dry and safe inside federal structures than running out of gas, being stuck by the side of the road and having to spend the night in their cars as many did last year." Non-emergency staff who stayed at the office would "be on their own nickel," said OPM Senior Director for Pay and Leave Jerry Mikowicz.

"You are not going to get paid because you are not performing work. It's for your safety that you're not leaving the building," he said.

But sheltering in place would be voluntary, said Berry. He urged federal employees to "share responsibility for our safety" and heed announcements, even when they do not see snow outside.

"Timing is important in emergencies. We've seen what happens when there's a sudden huge spike in traffic because everyone tries to leave at once" Berry said. "Plan ahead. Be prepared."

Employees don't need boss' OK to leave

In another change, the dismissal and closure policy now emphasizes that "employees need to feel empowered to act," Mikowicz said. OPM plans to continue to use email alerts, Twitter and Facebook to announce schedule changes. Once feds hear news of emergency closures, they do not need to wait for their supervisors' permission to leave the building, he said.

Agencies and national labor groups had complained that during January's snowstorm, employees had waited at the office for an "official" announcement from their leaders, even though OPM had already said it was okay to leave.

"It's official when OPM makes the announcement because your agency already has agreed to follow it," he said.

(Story continues below OPM video.)

Telework is first choice when snow falls at night

OPM's snow policy decision should be online by 4 a.m. whenever one inch of snow or ice has fallen the night before, according to OPM Director of Emergency Management Dean Hunter.

OPM will continue to encourage agencies to promote telework as a first recourse in weather emergencies, Berry said. But unscheduled telework will no longer be used for early departures.

"OPM believes it is more effective to announce 'unscheduled leave/unscheduled telework' at the beginning of the workday when severe weather is expected during the workday," according to the policy.

"Telework helps to keep our government functioning in emergencies and keeps our workers off the roads in poor conditions," Berry said. "We continue to believe the best approach to emergency conditions avoids bringing commuters into the city in the first place."

The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act required agencies to notify employees by June of their eligibility to work outside the office. Each telework-eligible fed must have a written agreement that addresses what they should do in emergency situations. The policy recommends that telework-ready employees regularly work outside the office so that they are prepared to do so in an emergency.

Based on the 2011 Employee Viewpoint Survey, about 20 percent of all federal employees said they have used telework for events such as a snowstorm — either because they already regularly telework or took unscheduled telework.

OPM Deputy Chief of Staff Justin Johnson said the agency estimates that of the 300,000 federal employees in the region, at least 60,000 are able to telework during such emergencies.

Agencies can act alone

The updated policy reminds agencies that they do not need OPM's permission to act in emergencies, particularly fires, flooding or other incidents impacting only certain buildings.

"When there is imminent danger and immediate action is required, an agency should and is fully authorized to take appropriate action for its employees without waiting or depending on an OPM announcement," Berry said.

During August's earthquake, communications problems prevented OPM from contacting agencies for stretches of time.

"We want agencies to know that under those circumstances, they need to act immediately," he said.

OPM sets snow policy for the 300,000 federal employees with offices inside I-495 (the Capital Beltway). Federal employees in surrounding suburbs should check with their agencies to see if they will follow the same guidance.

The policy does not apply to employees of the legislative branch, judicial branch, U.S. Postal Service, D.C. government, or private sector entities, including contractors.

Federal executive boards coordinate weather policies outside the Capitol region.

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