OPM tweaks snow-closure policy, with added push for telework

Thursday - 12/5/2013, 1:23pm EST

With the official start of winter just two weeks away, the Office of Personnel Management is tweaking its closure and dismissal guidelines.

The updated policy changes the way OPM will communicate delayed arrivals and continues to call on agencies to ensure all federal employees who are telework-ready actually do so when OPM gives the say-so during inclement weather.

Under the updated policy, when severe weather strikes the Washington, D.C., area, OPM has decided it won't specifically direct employees to stay off the roads until a certain time. Instead, OPM will alert employees to a delayed arrival and that they should report to their offices no later than a certain time, said Brenda Roberts, an official within OPM's leave administration.

OPM announced the changes during webcast Thursday morning

That's a reversal of course from last year's update, which included language both advising employees to stay off the roads and that agencies would open at a designated time.

"The last piece was very confusing, because the announcement was supposed to convey a no-later-than time for the employees to arrive at their offices," Roberts said. In practice, however, employees took it to mean that they shouldn't arrive at work until the designated time.

OPM has struggled in the past with making clear closure announcements. Last winter, when OPM used its "stay-off-the-roads" message for the first — and only — time, it generated confusion among some employees.

The new language for a delayed arrival is:

OPEN - DELAYED ARRIVAL - Employees must report to their office no later than XX:XX - With option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework

"This does not mean that the employee cannot arrive sooner than that time — they can always arrive sooner," Roberts said. "But once that time hits, then the leave starts getting charged."

OPM also has an option to delay employees' normal arrival time, such as a two- or three-hour delay.

Overall, OPM closed federal offices within the Beltway once this year and made unscheduled leave and telework announcements four times.

OPM: Agencies should encourage telework

OPM also wants to increase the number of federal employees who are able to work from home when bad weather forces agencies to close.

"Unscheduled telework is now a standard human-resource tool that we use in our procedures," Roberts said.

The 2010 Telework Enhancement Act required agencies to include telework in their continuity-of-operations plans to keep important government operations running in the event of weather emergencies and national disasters.

OPM's updated guidance calls on agencies to encourage all telework-eligible employees to enter into agreements specifying when and under what conditions they'll work from outside the office. Agencies should allow such employees to telework regularly so they are ready to do so if weather or another emergency shutters federal agencies.

"If an employee is not practiced, they're not really ready for an emergency situation," Roberts said.

Roberts said agencies should consider requiring telework-ready employees to work from home even when federal offices are closed. OPM also "strongly encourages" agencies to allow telework-ready employees to work from home any time OPM makes an announcement allowing for unscheduled telework — even if agencies remain open.

Experts: Expect a normal winter

OPM has updated its snow policies in each of the last two years.

In 2011, following the East Coast earthquake and so-called "Commute-ageddon," OPM rolled out a new set of dismissal options, including staggered departure times and a shelter-in-place option, both of which remain operational.

The latest update is timely. Temperatures are set to plummet this weekend and forecasters are predicting the region's first significant snowfall.

Steven Zubrick, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said during the OPM webcast that the agency is forecasting a "normal" winter this year.

But even in a typical year, the D.C. region can be prone to heavy snow prone, he added, and the important thing is to be prepared.

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