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OPM Chief Defends Decision To Send Workers Home

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry has apologized after hundreds of thousands of federal workers were caught in historically bad traffic just as a heavy snowstorm hit, but defended his decision to let workers leave two hours early on Wednesday afternoon.

Some who were critical of Berry said the decision to let some 300,000 federal workers in the Washington area leave two hours early unleashed them into the teeth of a ferocious late afternoon snowstorm. Many people faced evening commutes stretching more than eight hours as the entire D.C. region collapsed into total gridlock.

Berry said Thursday that while he’s sorry so many people faced such a miserable commute, his decision to let people out two hours early was the right one even if it didn’t have the desired effect. Many people who set out at as early as 4 p.m. failed to get home until after midnight. Even when vehicles had a glimmer of open space ahead, drivers frequently spun their wheels and got stuck on slippery roads. Hundreds of motorists abandoned their cars entirely, sometimes in the middle of the road.

“I don’t control the weather. I don’t control the roads. I control the work schedule,” Berry said at a hastily arranged news conference in Washington.

Berry said that because most federal workers start their days well before 8 a.m., most should have been able to get on the road before the snow started following a little after 3 p.m. But he said many people failed to take advantage because the skies looked clear.

Those who waited to leave until the snowflakes started falling were doomed because the snow fell so fast that road conditions deteriorated immediately. Efforts to pretreat roads failed because light rain earlier in the day washed away many of the chemicals.

“That was the fastest accumulating storm I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Berry said.

Berry said it’s natural for people to wait until they actually see the snow before deciding to head home early. In the future he said he hopes federal workers will take heed when they receive directives to shut down early.

Berry said he made the decision at 11 a.m. Wednesday to let people go home two hours early, and he said that because federal workers have such staggered start times it should have led to a gradual early release of afternoon rush-hour traffic. But he worried during the early afternoon that he had shut down the federal government prematurely for no good reason as nary a snowflake fell until after 3 p.m.

He said he didn’t believe it would have helped to let people go three or four hours early, because people were in the habit of staying put while skies remained clear.

Berry received support for his decision Thursday from William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents more than 100,000 federal workers at a variety of agencies.

“Given the weather forecasts, we feel that Director Berry’s decision to release federal employees two hours early was entirely appropriate,” Dougan said. “We all know that hindsight is 20/20. Taking into account the facts that Director Berry had in front of him Wednesday morning, it is clear that he made the appropriate call.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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