For folks in the National Capital Region (NCR), this has been an eventful week. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, usually referred to as Metro, shut down the entire metrorail system for an emergency safety inspection. The shutdown, coming with very little notice, was prompted by two fires and was the first non-weather related total system shutdown in Metro history.
To put it mildly, it was a big deal. Metrorail carries about 350,000 passengers during the average morning rush – roughly the equivalent of 35 lanes of freeway traffic. Without that transit capacity, the region’s highways and bus systems are simply not capable of handling all of the traffic. Even if they could, there is nowhere to park the tens of thousands of cars that would converge in downtown DC.
OPM had no real advance notice of the shutdown. They had to make a call on the government’s operating status for Wednesday, and according to some people, they got it wrong. So, the OPM bashing started again.
If you are OPM Director, there is no more thankless or miserable task than having to make these calls. There is no way – none, zilch, zip, nada – that the decision will please everyone. If Beth Cobert decided to shut down the government, she would be criticized for wasting money. When she decided to put the government on an unscheduled leave status, meaning employees could take leave if they had it available, she was criticized for contributing to a traffic nightmare.
Let’s take a look at the options OPM could choose from.
Unscheduled leave/telework. OPM chose this one. It is the least costly and disruptive option available, because it assumes a large number of employees will choose to telework or go to the office. The majority of those who do not will use leave they have already earned. A small percentage with no leave might have to take leave without pay.
Delayed arrival. This option recognizes that conditions might not be right for people to drive to work. It is most often used for weather, where early morning conditions are expected to be bad, but as the day progresses they will improve. The metrorail shutdown was unique. It has never happened before and OPM had no information to conclude that a delayed arrival would be beneficial. In fact, one person I spoke with who is a transportation expert with extensive knowledge of NCR transportation issues, told me that the cumulative effect of traffic pouring into DC would mean that later arrivals would add to the problem. So – if OPM had chosen this option, they might have made the commuting problems far worse.
Shutdown. The preferred option for many Feds was to shut down the government in the DC area. The NCR is home to about 300,000 federal workers, but OPM’s closure process applies directly only to those inside the capital beltway. Nearby agencies often choose to follow OPM’s lead, but they are not required to do so. If we take the most conservative route to valuation of a closure, we can look only at the 160,000 federal employees in the District of Columbia itself. They have an average salary of $110,000 per year, or $421 per work day. So – the cost of a workday in the NCR is $67,500,000. Even if we take out the employees who might telework or have to go in to work because they are safety/security types, the cost is still tens of millions of dollars. Some would argue that is not a real cost, because the government is already paying those salaries. While it is not a direct cost, it is the loss of that much productivity, so it has the same effect as spending money. Most (141,000) NCR employees earn either 20 or 26 days of annual leave and 13 days of sick leave. Only 19,000 have less than 3 years of service and earn 13 days of each per year.
One piece of advice virtually everyone in government or elsewhere hears is that we should conserve time off and save some for emergencies. If we have an accident driving to work, have a home emergency, or have any other type of problem that keeps us from getting to work, we protect ourselves by having leave available. People who are early in their careers and earning less leave, or who have family or other issues that consume leave may not have that luxury, but those are, for the most part, exceptions.
So should OPM make a decision to spend $67 million because of those exceptions? Is it fair for federal employees to get a free day off when other employees most likely are not? There are a lot of arguments on both sides, but I think OPM made the right call on this one. Certainly not the popular call, but the one that was the right business decision for the taxpayers. It is hard to explain to a taxpayer why a federal worker earning $110,000 per year and up to 39 days of leave and 10 paid holidays should get an extra day off because of this type of problem. Every time this issue comes up, it is fodder for those who want to criticize the federal workforce and cut their pay and benefits. We already have too much fed-bashing going on and do not need to add fuel to the fire.
That does not mean there is nothing that can be done to help employees who may not have enough leave. In addition to requests for advanced annual leave, there is a provision in 5 U.S. Code § 6302(d) that says “The annual leave provided by this subchapter, including annual leave that will accrue to an employee during the year, may be granted at any time during the year as the head of the agency concerned may prescribe.” That means an agency could choose to routinely make the entire amount of annual leave that employees will earn during a leave year available on day one of the leave year. If agencies did that, employees who earn less leave or who have situations that require them to use leave would most likely have more leave available for unplanned absences when they occur early in the year. Very few agencies use this flexibility, but it is available in the law and it is negotiable (for those agencies with unions). It is certainly worth exploring whether it should be the default means of citing annual leave, rather than a rarely used exception.