Did OPM flub Monday's delayed arrival announcement?

Monday - 1/28/2013, 4:00pm EST

Monday was the first time this winter the Office of Personnel Management has alerted federal employees that their offices would be opening late because of poor weather. It was also the first time OPM did so using new language designed to reduce confusion when the agency announces closings or delays.

But it didn't exactly go off without a hitch.

Late Sunday evening, just hours before gales of freezing rain blew into the Washington, D.C., area, OPM updated the federal government's operating status for Monday, informing employees that offices in the D.C. region would open under a delayed arrival.

"Employees should remain OFF THE ROADS until 10:00 a.m. FEDERAL OFFICES in the Washington, DC, area will OPEN at 12:00 noon," the alert stated. "Employees have the OPTION FOR UNSCHEDULED LEAVE OR UNSHEDULED TELEWORK."

However, by 6:00 a.m. Monday, OPM had changed the status. The updated status included a new line stating federal offices would open to the public at 12 p.m.

"Employees should remain OFF THE ROADS until 10:00 a.m.," according to the status. "FEDERAL OFFICES in the Washington, DC, area will OPEN at 10:00 a.m."

The new status seemed to suggest that federal employees should stay off the roads until 10 a.m. and yet still be expected to report to work at 10 a.m.

Further, OPM was supposed to have abandoned the "open to the public" language — per the updated version of its Dismissal and Closure Procedures — because the phrase had led to confusion in the past.

Some found changing status updates confusing

Most federal employees near Federal Triangle interviewed by WTOP's Hank Silverberg Monday afternoon, said they saw or heard only the announcement of the noon arrival plan.

But others said they were confused by the updated OPM language. An employee, who identified herself as a federal manager, called Federal News Radio and said she was confused by the status as it appeared early Monday morning on the OPM website and didn't know what to tell her employees.

In response to an email from Federal News Radio at about 7:15 a.m. Monday, OPM Director John Berry sought to clear up the confusion.

"Feds should stay off the road until 10, then start their commute, unless they are using [unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework]," Berry wrote in the email. "They will arrive when they do, and offices will allow them entry when they arrive. Offices will be open for the public at noon. We apologize for any confusion."

But as of 9:30 a.m., the language posted to OPM's website had shifted once again. The new status directed federal employees to remain off the roads until 10 a.m. and stated federal offices would open at 12 p.m. However, the latest update continued to state that federal offices would "open to the public" at 12 p.m.

Thomas Richards, an OPM spokesman, blamed glitches with OPM's website for the changing status notifications.

"Our main concerns with announcing the operating status of the government are to ensure the safety of the workforce, the continuity of government operations, and clear, timely notification to employees," Richards said in an email. "We experienced a few technical issues last night and this morning, but through social media, phone calls, and email we were able to disseminate the message in a timely manner to ensure the safety of the workforce. We're working to make sure that all of our communications systems are working appropriately to avoid any confusion in the future."

Richards said under the updated 2013 dismissal policies, OPM should not use the "open to the public" language for delayed arrivals and that the email alert, social media notifications and phone call notices sent to federal employees were all correct.

"We had some other technical issues that presented the outdated language on the website," he added.

However, as of 10 p.m. Sunday, the operating-status information on OPM's website reflected the correct language. It's unclear when that information changed.

Unions report no complaints so far

The National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees, two federal-employee unions, said they haven't heard of any complaints from employees about the directions.

OPM said it would conduct an after-action meeting Monday afternoon — as it does after every closing or delay announcement — to discuss areas for improvement in announcing the operating status of the federal government.

OPM has long been criticized for confusing status alerts. The agency updated its closure and dismissal policies in November following widespread confusion about federal-office closings during last fall's Superstorm Sandy.

Following the 2011 D.C.-area earthquake, OPM was similarly criticized for providing erroneous information about shuttered federal buildings. In addition to improperly listing some buildings as closed, the agency reported nonexistent federal buildings, such as the "U.S. Drug Administration," as being closed.

(Federal News Radio's Julia Ziegler and Mike O'Connell and WTOP's Hank Silverberg contributed to this report)

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