The Office of Personnel Management wants to ensure the confusion over the status of federal offices during Hurricane Sandy is not repeated for future natural or man-made events.
OPM Tuesday officially released the new language and updated its dismissal and closure procedures by incorporating the lessons learned from last month’s superstorm and last January’s ice storm. Both of which led to uncertainty by federal employees, contractors and the public over what the exact status of federal offices were.
OPM’s new announcement when snow, rain or other event closes federal offices will be: “Federal offices are closed-Emergency and telework ready employees must follow their agency’s policies.”
The agency first announced the change in language at the Chief Human Capital Officer’s Council meeting earlier this month.
“The old OPM policies used to say, ‘federal offices are closed to the public.’ We found when the hurricane happened maybe people were thinking in a snow mode because that’s when we usually use these announcements and weren’t sure what to do,” said Jerry Mikowicz, OPM’s deputy associate director for pay and leave policy, during a press briefing in Washington Tuesday. “We also found non-federal institutions follow OPM’s announcements and when they heard federal offices closed to the public, some of them thought federal employees are still coming in, but you can’t visit for a Social Security check or an IRS matter.”
He added the old language had been in place for a year, but because last winter was so mild, OPM never had to use it.
Even for the Derecho last summer, OPM mainly used the unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework determination because the outages were in parts of the area, but not the entire area so only certain buildings were closed.
(OPM video explaining changes to the operating status policy.)
Agencies outside D.C. area get instructions
Additionally, OPM is clarifying the language used to convey the status of federal offices for agencies outside of the Washington area.
Under the new procedures, OPM is making it more apparent that the decision to open or close offices outside of Washington falls to the agency head.
The policy states, “… each local federal agency head makes workforce status decisions for his or her agency employees and should report that workforce status decision to his or her agency headquarters.”
The Federal Executive Board (FEB) will continue to make recommendations in large metro areas.
Stay off the roads
A third change OPM made deals with the language describing a delayed arrival or early dismissal.
OPM now will specify the time federal employees should stay off the roads.
“Delayed arrival-Employees should remain off the roads until XX:XX. Federal offices will open at YY:YY. Employees have the option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.”
“When we announce a delayed arrival, we ask you to please stay off the roads until the indicated time. This will help road crews and the transportation authority to ensure your safety,” said OPM Director John Berry in a video message about the new policy.
Beyond these changes, OPM said it will continue to make a decision on closure no later than 4 a.m. while working with local governments, Amtrak, Marc, VRE, Metro and others to make the best status decision.
OPM annually updates the dismissal and closure policies taking in lessons learned from previous years.
Mikowicz said he expected the only change to be with the delayed arrival language, which OPM used for the first time last January during the ice storm.
But after Hurricane Sandy, it was clear the closing language had to be improved.
Cross-agency policy development
Mikowicz said about 15 agencies took part in the review effort.
“We find that not only do we make some major changes, but we also make some tweaks every year to try to get the message to be better,” he said. “Like unscheduled telework, the first time we used that people didn’t know what that meant, and there are other types of telework like situational or regular so part of it is getting used to the new vocabulary and the new way of doing it.”
Mikowicz said once OPM has a basic agreement with the agencies, they work with the employee unions and the Washington Council of Governments on ensuring the policy meets everyone’s needs. He said then it goes through a final OPM clearance process.
As part of these new procedures, OPM once again is urging agencies to complete telework agreements with employees.
“The goal is to have full use of telework-ready employees, for both essential and non-essential functions, to support continuity of operations on any day when federal offices are closed,” OPM states. “Agencies and employees must understand that telework is voluntary, but that it is also an arrangement that helps agencies and employees to balance work and personal needs through emergent and non-emergent periods.”
Hurricane Sandy showed the number of people who could telework but didn’t have telework agreements in place was large. OPM now is encouraging agencies to review their telework agreements.
Mikowicz said some employees worked during the hurricane despite not having a formal agreement in place.
He said OPM breaks down the different types of teleworkers into three categories. The first group is made up of employees scheduled to telework, who are supposed to telework when the government is closed.
The second group are employees, who if the government is closed, their telework agreement requires them to work no matter what.
And the third group, and largest group, are those who are teleworking ready, but don’t have an agreement which requires them to work.
Mikowicz said OPM will do four things to encourage agencies to get their employees, who are eligible, to telework:
Modify its guidance with a goal of having all telework eligible employees able to do so whether they are essential or non-essential.
Show employees and supervisors that telework is a two-way, voluntary agreement that benefits both parties.
Encourage employees to practice telework. If they do it only during an emergency, they may not remember how to log on to their agency’s virtual private network (VPN).
Ask agencies to look at all telework agreements and ensure as many employees can telework as possible, meaning they have agreements and in the agreements it says they should expect to telework if the government is closed.
OPM estimates about one-third of all federal employees are eligible to telework at any one time.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.