Some thought it would take a miracle to navigate the work commute during Pope Francis’ visit to Washington, with legions of fans crowding Metro cars and security checkpoints shutting down major roads. The Office of Personnel Management even encouraged federal employees to telework if they had the option. But D.C. area workers said the pope’s stop in Washington was not as awful as predicted.
In two surveys of federal employees and contractors before and after the pope’s visit, nearly 75 percent of respondents said in hindsight, OPM was right to keep the government open, compared to the roughly 50 percent who thought prior to his arrival that it would be wise to shutter offices.
“We should invite the Pope back every Tuesday and every Thursday,” one respondent wrote. “The commute was a dream, compared to non-Pope-visit days.”
“The commute was awesome!” another respondent said. “The roads were clear, wish the Pope visited more often if I can commute that easily.”
“I opted to telework because even though I did not think I would have any issues I figured the more people who were not on the roads the better,” another worker said.
Pope Francis arrived in Washington to great fanfare Sept. 22 and left for New York City on Sept. 24. While he was here, he stayed at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, directly across the street (Massachusetts Avenue N.W.) from the U.S. Naval Observatory, where Vice President Joe Biden hangs his hat.
A large swath of Massachusetts Avenue was closed to traffic for the entire visit, while the Mall, Capitol Hill and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception were hot spots for security checkpoints and road closures, as his Holiness’ motorcade made its way to and from various appearances.
Anticipating “significant detours” and hoping to “alleviate traffic congestion and minimize distraction to law enforcement and security officials,” OPM issued a memo urging agencies to allow their employees to use flexible workplace options.
The exclusive Federal News Radio surveys asked federal employees before and after the pope’s stay in Washington about their plans for telework and flexible work options.
Federal News Radio opened the first survey for several days before Francis’ arrival. The survey was taken by 215 respondents. About 75 percent of the survey takers identified as federal civilian workers, with about 17 percent answering that they were civilian Defense employees and 6.5 percent identifying themselves as contractors.
The second survey was opened for several days after the pope’s departure and 165 people provided answers about telework and how they handled the papal visit. Similar to the first survey, about 75 percent of the respondents said they were federal civilian employees, with civilian Defense employees and federal contractors comprising the remaining respondents.
Prepping for Pope Francis
Of the 215 people who took part in the first survey, 41.4 percent of them said they planned on teleworking during the pope’s visit, while 54.9 percent said they would not be teleworking. The remaining 3.7 percent answered that they were unsure about teleworking.
For the respondents in the first survey, most workers said they commuted to the office by car or Metro and the trip took them between a half-hour to an hour.
While telework was the most popular flexible workplace option to use prior to the pope’s arrival — 77.6 percent of respondents — 8.2 percent and 10.2 percent said they planned on flexing their hours to come in to the office earlier or taking a vacation or sick day, respectively.
A common worry among the respondents of the first survey was the unreliability of Metro.
“Hope Metro works ok for those who need it — it’s bad enough on regular commute days, and lots of tourists will be relying on it,” a respondent answered.
“It’s a real safety issue for me,” another wrote. “Thousands and thousands of visitors to the area, commuter buses that will not be able to get into town, and a number of agencies that are not able to telework. It seems like a nightmare just waiting to happen. Not everyone is able to telework. My feeling is that if the bus cannot get into town, then there is a reason we should not be coming into town. I’m very worried. And my 50 minute commute will likely triple due to this event.”
Respondents who took the survey before Pope Francis’ arrival and said they did not plan on teleworking largely said their reason for not doing so had to do with the option not being available at their office.
“My position doesn’t offer it,” one respondent wrote.
Another said, “Telework is not an option for our group. Being forced to take leave earned is unfair for all fed gov employees,” a complaint other respondents echoed in their answers.
“Our agency does not allow for telework due to the nature of our business,” a respondent said. “I’m nervous about my commute since the buses will not be traveling downtown during the Pope’s visit. We will be left to take Metro (in a part of the region that is notorious … for not being the safest place to be). I’m very concerned about the safety with thousands of visitors traveling into the city. It only takes one little blip on the Metro and service is ruined for all riders. I really wish they would offer some sort of admin leave or allow us to work comp time to help us out. I don’t have extra hours of leave to just use for no reason.”
Others pointed to issues such as in-person training schedules, busy end-of fiscal years, while some had confidence that things would not be as bad as predicted.
“I cannot telecommute with a toddler at home. My daycare is in the city and near the [White House]. IT will be inaccessible to even try to do a drop off. I must take annual leave,” a respondent answered.
“The visit isn’t a surprise. It has been advertised and anyone that has worked in the city for more than a day knows the issues and should plan accordingly,” one respondent said.
“It is bad commuting every day, this will just be a little worse,” another said.
“It will be interesting to see how bad traffic really is,” someone wrote.
But Pope Francis came and went, with no major nightmares of mention. While the main highways endured typical issues, and Metro had to power down its Stadium-Armory train station due to a fire the night before his arrival, commuters reported empty train cars and open streets.
Just over 80 percent of the respondents said their commute was not longer than normal, though the roughly 20 percent who answered yes or weren’t sure, said the commute was no more than 45 minutes longer than usual.
“The commute without all the Feds on the road was fantastic. I recommend that if closing the government is not an option for similar events, that telework is strongly encouraged and supported so that the people who have to go to work can get there in a reasonable amount of time,” another said.
Some survey takers said they used alternate forms of transportation to their usual mode of getting to work.
“Drove instead of taking the bus. My bus was not going into the city due to the pope’s visit,” someone wrote.
Another said: “Rather than taking the metro I took the VRE. It was surprisingly uncrowded. I attribute it to OPM directing organizations to promote as much telework as possible.”
“I opted to telework because even though I did not think I would have any issues I figured the more people who were not on the roads the better.”
Of those who said they used a flexible workplace option, about 53 percent said they teleworked, while about 24 percent said they used flex hours to come into the office earlier.
“It seemed to workout well, although I did telecommute (worked), the agency suggested as an option that we take vacation days. I think that was unfair to put pressure to take the hit out of our own pocket (on top of everything else that feds have been hit with).”
Another said: “I assumed as normally happens with foul weather, the situation was being exaggerated, which it clearly was.”