- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Between snow days, official holidays and the government shutdown, federal employees have worked a normal business day less than 75 percent of the time since Oct. 1, marking a startlingly chaotic beginning to the fiscal year.

Offices have been closed in whole or in part for 27 of the 105 weekdays so far in the fiscal year, according to a Washington Times analysis of announcements from the federal Office of Personnel Management that found the government was closed for 21 days because of the shutdown, snow days or holidays. Delayed openings or unscheduled leave and telework policies were in effect for six more days.

Congress is the worst offender when it comes to time away from the main office.

Neither the House nor the Senate has worked a full Monday-to-Friday workweek in 2014.

House members have been in session for 17 of the 35 weekdays so far this year, less than 50 percent. Senators have met in full session for 18 days, slightly better than 50 percent.

Blame for federal employees’ crazy schedule is widespread: Congress and President Obama forced the shutdown when they were unable to agree on spending bills for the fiscal year, and the calendar this time of year is always full of official holidays. As for the snow — well, that’s either Mother Nature or climate change, depending on your perspective.

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OPM officials didn’t respond to a request for comment on the closures, which have come under extra scrutiny in recent days as bitter weather has led to more snow days.

A labor union representing many federal employees said the workers are not to blame.

“The idea that federal employees are sipping cocoa by the fire when the government declares a snow emergency went out with the rotary phone,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “Federal employees are teleworking more than ever and remain connected to their jobs through email, voice mail and the Internet — whether their offices are open or closed. So snow days are now work days for many federal employees, which is a good thing since it improves employee safety without decreasing productivity.”

Washington-area Internet chat boards have been inundated in recent weeks with questions about how the government handles telework.

For some agencies, employees who agree to telework are required to be on the job even when their offices are closed because of weather conditions. That left some of them struggling with ways to manage their schedules at a time when their children may be home, too.

The government shutdown presents an altogether different story for federal employees.

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Some were banned from working — which meant not being allowed to even pick up a government mobile device — while others were deemed essential and had to report.

Regardless of whether the government employees were considered essential or not, none of them was paid until the shutdown ended. Congress then approved pay for all federal employees, including those who did not work.

Some workers who were required to work “essential” jobs, who received only their base pay retroactively, have filed a lawsuit demanding compensatory damages of double pay for the hours they worked to make up for missed bill payments and other financial problems caused by the shutdown.

That lawsuit now has more than 1,000 plaintiffs. They have asked that a notice be sent to all 1.3 million workers who had to work throughout the shutdown.

Mr. Cox said the shutdown should be a warning to Congress.

“Federal employees are motivated by delivering services to the American people, and no one was more frustrated by the shutdown than federal employees who were forced to stay home,” he said. “Hopefully Congress has learned a lesson that shutting down the government to score political points benefits no one and harms everyone.”

Fiscal year 2013 was slightly less chaotic for federal employees, many of whom were furloughed because of the “sequester” budget cuts that reduced agency budgets nearly halfway through the fiscal year.

On the other side of the ledger, the federal government is generous with paid holidays, tallying a standard 10 every year. The number sometimes is higher because the president can declare extra holidays, including Christmas Eve.

Mr. Obama didn’t give employees Dec. 24 off last year, however. Analysts said that is usually reserved for when Christmas falls on a Tuesday or a Friday and a Christmas Eve holiday would create a four-day weekend.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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