OPM revises language, pushes telework for federal closures

A bus navigates the streets during a snowstorm in Washington, DC in 2009. A bus navigates the streets during a snowstorm in Washington, DC in 2009. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP file photo

The Office of Personnel Management officially announced changes to its dismissal and closure procedures Tuesday, revealing a clarification to the language it uses to inform federal employees when offices are shut and a renewed focus on teleworking.

As previously reported, OPM will use the message “Federal offices are closed -- emergency and telework-ready employees must follow their agency’s policies” to announce closures in the National Capital area. During Superstorm Sandy in October, OPM posted the message “Federal offices are closed to the public” with further instructions referencing telework that created confusion.

“The intent of that messaging was that we passed along to people that the federal government is really never closed,” Dean Hunter, OPM’s deputy director of facilities, security and contracting, said at a press conference. “You’re always going to have emergency workers and teleworkers . . . With Hurricane Sandy there was some confusion with that, so we’re just modifying the language.”

He added the primary concern during any event that alters the standard workday is the safety of employees and the continuity of government.

To help ensure operations continue during a storm, OPM is encouraging agencies to help their employees become telework-ready.

“The government doesn’t stop because there is snow or ice or other inclement weather,” said Thomas Richards, OPM’s communication and public liaison director. “It’s really important that we encourage as many people to telework when the federal government buildings are closed.”

OPM is advising supervisors to discuss telework agreements with their employees and to come up with solutions that are mutually beneficial to the employee and agency. Many federal employees’ agreements require them to telework when federal buildings are closed and the recently released Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey found that one-third of federal employees -- either because they are emergency workers or telework -- work when the government is closed.

Another new policy involves delayed openings. OPM now will announce two separate times; the first to convey when the roads are safe to drive on and the second to state when federal buildings will reopen.

The officials stressed that OPM’s announcement applies only to employees and buildings in the Washington area and those outside the Beltway must rely on information from their own region.

Jerry Mikowicz, OPM’s deputy associate director for pay and leave, said his agency consulted with 15 others, as well as national labor groups and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, to revise federal closure procedures.

“We strived to reach a product that can reach the most number of people as quickly as possible,” Mikowicz said.

Chris Strong from the National Weather Service, who was also at the press conference, said the Washington region can expect a milder winter than 2010 -- which saw “Snowmaggedon” and extended federal closures -- but a more intense winter than last year’s “non-winter,” when the region only saw two inches of snow.

“We should expect a much more normal winter here for the Washington metro area,” Strong said.

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