Union unhappy with OPM handling of Metrorail suspension

Metrorail is back running, but the analysis goes on. Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld was vindicated. He showed a video of an underground cable in such bad shape it looked like the innards of Robbie the Robot. That one rotted cable alone would have shut down at least that rail line. Inspectors found two dozen others. Unfortunately, the Office of Personnel Management didn’t fare as well with federal employees.

Two strains of thought emerged, one concerning the status of the government, the other the status of affected employees.

I spoke with J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. His beef isn’t that OPM kept the government open for normal business, but that employees were forced to use vacation or other leave days if they were unable to get to work.

“I don’t blame OPM … they weren’t in control of this,” Cox said, referring to the Metro decision. But to offer unscheduled leave rather than excused absences, Cox said, “is an unfair thing.” His reasoning: Some employees simply had no other means to get to work. Perhaps they don’t own a car. Maybe they can’t afford a taxi. Buses might’ve been too crowded to let any more people aboard.

Cox’s view shows a fundamental difference in worldview that sometimes shows up between rank-and-file and management. He said the regular people aren’t looking for a free day off, and that everyone should make a best effort to get to the office. But for some it’s just not doable under some circumstances. He said OPM would have likely allowed excused absences had D.C. experienced an earthquake. Management often has a macho attitude — get to work no matter what. And it’s suspicious of what it considers sissies who don’t also get there, no matter what.

It reminded me of the big blizzard that hit the D.C. region in January. My house sits on the main street through our neighborhood. It got plowed repeatedly through the night and through the next day of snowfall. I had no problem getting out once I used the snowblower on the driveway. But some of the side streets didn’t get plowed for two or three days. No way anyone could go anywhere in a car.

As for telework, Cox points out — accurately — that not everyone’s job is teleworkable. Especially lower-level, non-knowledge workers.

Judging from Federal News Radio’s Facebook page and that all-knowing barometer of the hive mind, Twitter, lots of feds thought the government should have been closed, whatever that means. They blamed OPM for making the wrong decision.

C’mon. OPM made the right call in keeping the government open for business. The region depends on Metro, but not completely, totally and unfailingly. The system does have some resilience. D.C. streets were snarled, but some of the peripheral highways were actually lighter than usual.

Whether OPM should have granted excused absences as AFGE’s Cox says, that’s a tougher call. It comes down to how much trust there is between individual bosses and their underlings.

More commentary from Tom Temin

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