A lot of people in the Washington, DC metro area saw the news they were looking for on Tuesday. The government is “Closed.” For most Federal workers, it means a snow day. Time home with the family, not having to worry about child care (because the schools are closed too), and an opportunity to either play in the snow or shovel it. But – what does “Closed” really mean?
When the government “closes” it does not really close. Much like it does not shut down during a shutdown, there are vital services that simply must go on, and they do. If you go to Dulles International Airport today, you will find Transportation Security Officers at the checkpoints and in baggage screening. You will find Customs and Border Protection Officers on the job working with both passengers and cargo. If you go to any of the military installations in the area, safety, security and fire personnel will be on the job. Many other people in jobs that cannot stop just because some snow fell will be at work. They know the job they signed up for, and most of them do not complain about having to go to work.
The rules have been the same for many years – the “emergency” employees show up regardless of the weather. But something has changed in recent years. Now we have thousands of employees who telework. Depending on the terms of their telework agreement and their union contract (for bargaining unit employees), many people who are on approved telework agreements do not get the day off. They are expected to put in a full days work at home and get no benefit from the government being “closed.” Is that fair? Given that the government supports telework for a lot of good reasons (including reducing traffic, saving on office rent and giving employees their commute time back), should it ask the people who have signed up to do what the government wants (teleworkers) to work when the people who do not or cannot telework get the day off? Yes, it should.
One other key reason for telework – one that I believe is among the strongest arguments for a mobile workforce – is continuity of operations. Snow storms, hurricanes, tornados and other acts of God can cause problems for far longer than a day or two. Acts of man, such as terrorist attacks, can cause long-term emergencies where the ability of the government to continue to operate is crucial to our nation’s security and economic interests. We have already had examples of agencies that continued to provide services in disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. The ability of people to work from home or another remote location is in our interest and it is a very good thing. So I view days like today as dry runs for the day when we may need a dispersed workforce continuing to do the people’s work even when a natural or man-made disaster strikes.
Is it fair? When we consider all of the hours of commuting that telework saves, yes. People who save 2 or more hours every day they telework only have to telework 4 days to save enough time to make up for a day like today. In the big scheme of things, that is not a bad deal.