January 27, 2011
OPM Director John Berry is taking a lot of heat today (so to speak) for his reaction to yesterday's messy snowstorm that hit the Washington area.
I have a lot of sympathy for Berry, because when it comes to these kinds of events, he has the most thankless job in Washington. No one's ever going to say, "Hey, the roads are clear today, even though the weather's bad. Good call on the delayed opening, Mr. Berry!" He'll only get attention when the call he makes can be questioned. And he doesn't have much control over whether he'll be characterized as a weather wimp or a guy who failed to pull the trigger on a shutdown quickly enough.
In Berry's defense, the timing of yesterday's storm was brutal. After a brief scare in the morning, the weather was fine throughout the day until the storm hit like a sledgehammer. I left my office downtown a little after 2:00, and made it down the heavily traveled I-395 corridor to my home office in about 25 minutes. My wife left less than an hour later, and it took her three and a half hours to get home.
The problem, it would seem, is that she got on the roads at about the same time as thousands of federal employees who ordinarily would work until 5:00. Berry told Federal News Radio that's not the case. The old 9-to-5 commute "was over 20 years ago," he said. "Now feds come in -- some come in as early as 5 o'clock in the morning, and they start leaving from 1 o'clock on."
Berry said the problem is that people hung around their offices until they started to see flakes fall, and by then it was too late. I beg to differ at least a little with that. Yes, a lot of people work non-standard schedules, but anybody who hits the roads or gets on the Metro around 8-9 a.m. and about 5-6 p.m. knows that there's still such a thing as a heavy morning and evening rush hour, and it's not all private-sector folks. In fact, I'm guessing it's still more likely that federal employees work a standard schedule than private-sector workers. And there's no question that a lot of people hit the roads at about 3:00 yesterday. In most cases, I'm guessing that's because they were heading out two hours before their regularly scheduled departure.
My take is that the big difference maker in these situations is whether the federal government offers unscheduled leave (and, more recently unscheduled telework). Once that happens, a lot of people take advantage of these options and the roads are generally pretty clear. Such is the case today, from what I've heard.
January 27, 2011