This article has been updated with information from the National Institutes of Health and the Pentagon.
The Washington Metrorail’s marathon of major track repairs and upgrades started Saturday, and capital region residents – including federal employees – were preparing for serious disruptions to their daily commutes.
To minimize the impact of the year-long SafeTrack program on federal operations, the Office of Personnel Management has recommended that Washington-area agencies maximize the use of workplace flexibilities, including telework and alternative work schedules. OPM has established an interagency working group through the Chief Human Capital Officers Council to further study how the project – which will entail continuous single-tracking on some line segments for several weeks at a time, and will close down other portions of track entirely for as long as 23 days – will affect agencies and to issue additional guidance and best practices for keeping the workforce productive during the repairs.
Ultimately, agencies will have to set their own policies, though. “Given the scope, duration and nature of the disruptions, the impact to agencies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area will vary,” wrote acting OPM Director Beth Cobert, in a May 20 memorandum to chief human capital officers and human resources officials. “That means [OPM will not impose] a single approach for the entire federal government.”
The American Federation of Government Employees, which has talked to OPM about the project, is encouraging officials to stay as flexible as possible. AFGE is “pressing agencies to let employees adjust their schedules as needed to make up any time lost as a result of commuting delays and give more employees the opportunity to work from home in light of the unique circumstances posed by this unprecedented situation,” National President J. David Cox said.
Government Executive contacted a sample of federal agencies to see how their plans are shaping up. We’ve shared what we learned below, and will continue to add to this list as we receive updates or new information. We also would like to hear from you in the comments section about how you plan to navigate SafeTrack, and whether your agency has provided you with the tools you need to remain productive.
Defense Department: Through email notifications, website updates and social media, Washington Headquarters Services plans to offer employees alternative travel options based on the impact from each surge. “Currently, normal parking operations and enforcement remain in effect,” according to Pentagon spokesman Army Maj. Jamie Alan Davis. “However, WHS is monitoring the severity of the Metrorail service reduction, the available alternative travel options and traffic conditions for each surge and may implement adjustments to normal operations as needed to minimize disruption.” The department is “following OPM guidance to work with employees to develop options to get to their jobs by working around the constraints of the METRO SafeTrack project,” he said.
General Services Administration: GSA has “established a flexible and mobile work environment for employees, and the GSA workforce is ready to use flexible work options, with more than 90 percent of employees telework-ready in order to accommodate for the need to work at an alternate location,” a spokesperson said in an email to Government Executive.
Homeland Security Department: The department sent a message to employees describing the SafeTrack project and then offering the following advice:
DHS employees in the National Capital Region can expect SafeTrack to significantly impact their commutes – even if they don’t take public transportation.
You should talk with your supervisor about the anticipated impact on your commute and discuss using telework or scheduling flexibilities, as appropriate.
Housing and Urban Development Department: HUD, which on Friday sent its workforce information on SafeTrack as well as department-specific guidance, encouraged supervisors to provide “the highest level of flexibility” when it comes to telework, arrival times and liberal leave for employees SafeTrack. The guidance recommends, for instance, allowing start times for employees after 9:30 a.m., and up to five days of telework for those with telework agreements. The department also is changing its “core hours” for employees in the Washington region starting Monday from 9:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. Core hours are the hours each day that a full-time employee must be present for work.
“To ensure HUD employees meet mission needs with the least possible inconvenience to employees, employees will be able to discuss adjustments to their work hours with their supervisors that might enable them to travel to HUD during non-traditional ‘rush hour’ times while still working and/or taking leave to meet their daily work schedule requirements,” said the HUD guidance. “Supervisory approval of employee work schedules is still required, so that managers can ensure essential work functions can be completed.”
While the department is not changing its leave policy because of SafeTrack, the guidance directed supervisors to be “lenient” as it relates to SafeTrack leave requests.
HUD’s intranet will include a link to the SafeTrack updates webpage, and the department will send email updates to Washington-area employees before each new phase of the project begins.
Internal Revenue Service: The IRS sent its Washington employees a message on June 2 telling them that if SafeTrack will affect their commute, then they should consider alternatives and talk to their supervisors. “Regardless of how you travel, you should allow extra time going to and from work during the maintenance periods,” the message stated.
The message then described four types of flexibilities available to employees: telework, including the possibility of waiving a requirement to show up in the office twice per pay period; temporary tour of duty change, such as changing hours from 7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. to 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; temporary change in type of alternative work schedule; and unscheduled leave.
National Institutes of Health: Like other agencies, NIH is encouraging use of existing workplace flexibilities such as compressed work schedules, telework and flexible schedules. The agency also is urging employees to consider alternate transportation options such as buses, carpools and bicycling. But if those fail, NIH is offering something a little different: "For those employees who must drive, we are offering temporary parking permits only during the phase an employee is directly impacted," said spokesman Brad Moss. The passes will be for spaces in existing parking lots on NIH's federally owned campus, and therefore the agency is not spending any additional money to provide the temporary parking. "We simply expanded the program temporarily to include those employees that are directly impacted by a particular phase in the SafeTrack program, access to these existing employee lots, and only during that specific phase directly impacting them," Moss said.
Veterans Affairs Department: The Veterans Affairs Department sent employees the OPM memorandum reminding them about the SafeTrack project, and also issued a message to the workforce through “HeyVA,” its internal message board.
“VA managers are encouraged to make use of the wide range of workplace flexibilities available for employees, including telework, alternative work schedules, annual leave, leave without pay, and previously earned compensatory time and/or earned credit hours under a flexible work schedule,” the message stated. “At the same time, VA encourages employees to plan alternative travel options and to allow extra time for their commutes.”
(Charles S. Clark, Eric Katz, Kellie Lunney and Katherine Peters contributed to this report)