Terrorism, Biohazardous Material, and Snow in Washington

Snow in Washington creates problems. It s political? Is it dangerous? Is it expensive? Perhaps it’s all of the above.

By the time you read this article, it may be snowing somewhere in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. If not, it is supposed to start snowing later today. Many federal employees have tuned into the local weather and will be watching the sky from their office windows throughout the area.

So far at least, the government has not closed but employees can take unscheduled leave according to the OPM announcement. That may change as the snow actually arrives.

Snow in D.C. is not newsworthy. It snows in Washington just about every year. Of course, it also snows in most cities north of Washington and many of them get a lot more snow than in the District and its suburbs.

But snow in Washington seems special. Snow in Washington can and sometimes does close down the federal government. And when the government closes down, a few million dollars are lost because large numbers of federal employees are not at work.

Closing down the government is an emotional issue with many readers. An article last month entitled “Another Day Off in DC? Sorry, Not Today” generated comments from readers such as this one from a reader in Boston, Massachusetts:

“A day off???? For 3-4 inches of snow ?????????????

I work in Boston. We have just concluded a blizzard that dumped 20-30 inches of snow ending late yesterday. I’m in my office as is most of the staff. I can’t imagine that the city is not manageable in DC even if they are not used to as much snow as us given the relatively small amount that was received.”

An employee of the USDA, who obviously does not live in the DC area, chimed in:

“Well gee…Those of us who do not work in the D.C. area don’t get ANY days off – in my 23 years of federal service I can think of only 2 times I was allowed to go home early because of weather, and we never get any time off due to local events causing traffic problems.”

An attorney with SSA really didn’t like the article about snow in DC. He (or she) commented:

“Mr. Ralph Smith – aren’t federal employees the target audience of this web site? Then why do you insist on drafting and posting articles that make us feds look like a bunch of whiners who want to get out of work for any reason?”

And, perhaps with unintended irony, another reader wrote in (whining perhaps?) regarding the issue of snow in Washington:

“I didn’t want a day off today because of the weather, I just think it wasn’t fair for ALL federal worker in the area not to be off for Inauguration Day.”

And a reader from USDA (who does work in the DC area) highlighted the problem with the comment that:

“Working in DC is no picnic for those of us that commute into the city. The DC residents despise us because they say that the city will clear the streets for us but not their residential areas. However, the TRUE story is that DC does not expend very much effort in clearing the roads and sidewalks for us. The streets are congested and narrow thus the potential for sliding in to another vehicle is high.”

My personal favorite was a quote from an HR specialist:

“I like the humor in your article, however, I do believe Federal Workers should get the week off until the Dept of Transporation cleans out the snow. Its not like we have anything pressing we are working on anyway.”

Being the director of the Office of Personnel Management undoubtedly requires having a thick skin and being able to accept criticism. No where is this more true than during a snow alert. Because, at the center of this controversy, is the OPM director. In addition to making decisions on the federal government’s human resources programs, OPM decides whether to close the government when it snows. Snow in Washington in the winter falls into the same general category as terrorist attacks on the city and exposure to biohazardous material.

No one seems to know the real criteria used to decide whether the government will be closed or whether federal employees will be told they can take leave and stay home (or go to the mall) because of bad weather. Working in a political environment, some employees think it depends on the party affiliation of the director. According to this theory, Democrats are the party of the people and will often give time off for bad weather because they really feel the pain of employees who have to drive to work in the snow. On the other hand, Republicans are the puppets of large corporations who don’t like the federal government and want to take the opportunity to make their lives as miserable as the government can make the lives of business people subject to government regulation.

There doesn’t seem to be much basis for that other than the political affiliation of the person who thinks he should have had the day off. The government seems to be closed occasionally regardless of who is in power.

What is certain is that when it snows, the director of OPM is in for criticism. Either he (or she) will be putting the lives of tens of thousands of federal employees at risk by telling them to go to work during bad weather or, alternatively, the agency will be wasting millions of taxpayer dollars to give federal employees another day off for bad weather despite already having a generous leave program and a lot of federal holidays.

Having lived in the DC area and worked for the government (including OPM) for a number of years, several people asked for my advice on how to handle snow days (none of them worked for OPM though). Here’s my advice.

First, consider moving to Florida (or some other warm climate) where snow is not a problem. I now live in Florida and have not seen any snow here yet.

Second, if you must live and work in DC, don’t pay attention to whether the government is open or closed. If it is going to snow, use your leave and go home (or stay home). Perhaps you can get credit for telecommuting. At least you won’t get an ulcer wondering if you will run out of gas because you are stuck in traffic for several hours.

Third, if you are the director of OPM, or just advising the director, any decision is going to be unpopular anyway. I would lean toward a liberal leave policy and tell everyone to use their leave–unless it’s an election year and I was hoping to serve another term of office.

Finally, while snow is under the same category as terrorism and biohazardous material as far as closing down the government, put it into perspective. It’s a mess and it’s cold and it’s inconvenient. But the snow will will melt in a few days and life will be back to normal.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47