Snow-day telework rules loosen up

The Office of Personnel Management announced a new "unscheduled" telework policy for federal workers who are unable to commute to work due to severe weather or other emergencies.

Editor's Note: The story below was originally published on Dec. 15, 2010. Based on the traffic havoc wreaked by a fast-moving snowstorm Jan. 26, we thought it is appropriate to remind our readers that telework rules have changed.

Just in time for the snow showers expected this week, the Office of Personnel Management announced a new telework policy for federal workers who are unable to commute to work due to severe weather or other emergencies. Under the policy, all federal employees with telework agreements will be eligible to participate in an “unscheduled telework” option when they can’t make it to the office.

Federal agencies will still be able to exercise their authority to provide an excused absence to telework employees on a case-by-case basis (for childcare issues or power outages, for example) when employees are instructed to work on days when federal offices are closed, according to OPM.

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Labor groups praised OPM’s new policy for giving federal workers the flexibility to working from home, if offices are inaccessible, and prevents them from having to use annual leave when the government declares a delayed arrival, early departure or closure. During the major snowstorms in the winter of 2009-2010, many stranded feds stayed productive teleworking, but others were forbidden to due to inflexible office policies.

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said the new policy also “demonstrates the value of technology in allowing the work of the government to proceed even in bad weather.”

The new telework policy comes a week after President Barack Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act into law. The law requires all executive agencies establish telework policies and provide telework programs for all eligible employees within 180 days. It also calls for teleworkers to sign a written agreement establishing specific work agreements.

The OPM policy aligns with the law’s provisions and arrives in anticipation of possible winter storms, although heavy snowfall isn’t yet in the forecast. Last winter’s two snowstorms, known as “Snowmaggedon,” left government offices closed for days.

The American Federation of Government Employees noted the benefits of telework during these storms in an endorsement of the OPM policy.

“During last winter’s major snow storms many of our members continued to work from home and the business of the government kept humming despite the closure of D.C. offices for five days,” said AFGE National President John Gage in a statement. “We have continued to push OPM to provide additional opportunities for more workers to have this flexibility.”

Essentially, the OPM policy changes the work status of federal employees during a weather or other emergency-related disruption from “open with option for unscheduled leave” to “open with option for unscheduled leave or unscheduled telework.”

In a report detailing the new policy, OPM encourages agencies to review current telework arrangements and establish agreements with employees who are scheduled to telework or have the potential to telework under the new unscheduled telework option at any time during the year.

“Special attention should be paid to those employees who will telework only on an occasionally, situational basis during events or circumstances that disrupt or prevent commuting or reporting to work at the office,” the agency said.

Further, the report instructs agencies to modify or renegotiate current telework policies to “require any employee with a telework agreement to work on a day when the government declares an emergency dismissal and closure procedures irrespective of whether that employee was previously scheduled telework.”

 This new requirement must be explicitly included in an employee’s written telework agreement and is subject to collective bargaining, the report said.

In addition, OPM will no longer describe the government as "closed." The new designation is “closed to the public,” to signify that some federal workers are on the job, either in their offices or from remote locations, no matter what the conditions.