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With Winter Approaching, OPM Reminds Agencies of Closure and Leave Policies

The 2018 decision that employees who can work remotely usually cannot take leave due to a weather event has created a complicated web of rules and exceptions.

The Office of Personnel Management last week sent a reminder to federal agencies of policies for dealing with major weather events, as winter approaches.

In a memo to agency heads, OPM Director Dale Cabaniss said that although there are not any new changes to how agencies should handle weather-related office closures, she wanted to reiterate the policy as it is still relatively new. OPM first issued the current procedures in 2018 as part of its implementation of the 2016 Administrative Leave Act.

“The safety of our workforce and the general public is our greatest concern,” Cabaniss said in a statement. “This memo will remind agencies and managers of the tools they have available to them when an operating status announcement is issued by OPM. These procedures reflect the principle that the federal government’s vital business must continue without compromising safety of our public servants.”

The memo lays out a number of frequently asked questions about how the still relatively new weather leave system works, outlining a number of common scenarios. In most cases, a full-time federal employee who does not engage in telework will be granted leave after OPM issues an “operating status announcement” recommending agencies close for the day. Similarly, feds would be granted two hours of leave following a two-hour delay announcement from OPM.

Those who have access to telework will generally be expected to work from home in the event of a snow storm or other weather event, in what marks one of the biggest changes in last year’s regulations. This is true even if the employee was not scheduled to work remotely on the day in question.

“The Administrative Leave Act of 2016 authorizes weather and safety leave ‘only if the employee or group of employees is prevented from safely traveling to or performing work at an approved location,’” the memo states. “For employees who participate in a telework program, the telework site (usually the employee’s home) is an ‘approved location’—i.e., a location that has been approved by the agency for the performance of work. Employees who can work at their home are not prevented from safely traveling to work.”

That rule has exceptions, however. An employee with a telework agreement still may be granted weather-related leave if the employee “could not have reasonably anticipated” the weather event or emergency and left their computer or other work materials at the office. And workers are not expected to telework if the storm or emergency causes damage to their home or knocks out their power.

OPM wrote that things can really get complicated for teleworking employees who have child care responsibilities when schools are closed. If an agency has a policy that prevents employees from working remotely while caring for young children, a teleworking employee may be granted weather leave if their child must stay home. But an agency could also institute a policy allowing telework with children at home in certain severe weather situations, in which case employees still must work from home.

“An agency may adopt a policy that allows telework while young children are in the home in weather/safety emergency situations; in that case, the employee must account for all hours within the established tour by teleworking or taking appropriate leave to cover any time spent caring for a child, and weather and safety leave would not be appropriate,” OPM wrote.

Additionally, intermittent employees are not eligible for weather and safety leave, as they lack “an established regularly scheduled tour of duty” and are similarly excluded from earning other forms of annual leave. And employees who already have scheduled leave, for vacation and the like, cannot take advantage of weather and safety leave, unless the weather event forced a change in their travel plans, such as if their flight is cancelled.