Friday, February 12, 2010


“Forget red and blue - color America white. There was snow on the ground in 49 states Friday -- all 50 states if you count the snow on top of the mountains in Hawaii.”

So stated an AP story quoted on the WTOP News Website on February 12, 2010. You would think I would use this as a springboard to take another potshot at the politically motivated global warming hysteria. Believe me, it is tempting, but that is not my purpose here.

I will focus instead on the effects of the record snowfall in Washington, DC, expressed not only in terms of the back to back storms that dumped more than three feet of snow on the national capital area, but also in terms of closings and delays. While it is not uncommon that a significant snowfall should shut down local school systems—for obvious safety reasons--it is extremely rare for inclement weather to shut down the federal government, even for a day. Instead, federal employees who cannot make it into work are usually offered the option of taking unscheduled leave.

Not this time. The government shut down four hours early on Friday, February 5th in anticipation of the big storm causing a messy evening rush hour, and it remained closed Monday through Thursday the following week. It reopened on Friday the 12th, but with allowances for a two hour delayed arrival as well as an unscheduled leave option.

I will preface what I am about to say by making it clear that the Office of Personnel Management made a wise decision. The conditions were really that bad, and it would have been insane to force approximately 300,000 federal workers[i] to risk life and limb by venturing into the city.

Yet I am feeling a tinge of guilt because I spent the entire week hunkered down in my home. Other than venturing out to shovel the walk and the driveway, I didn’t do much all week. Because I normally work an Alternate Work Schedule of 9 hour days allowing me to take every other Friday off, I was not even obligated to go to the office on Friday the 12th. I intended to go anyway to start to take a crack at tackling my burgeoning inbox, but the continued problems with commuter train delays and disruptions caused me to decide against it.

I felt guilty enough because I could have spent my time more productively even while I was stuck at home. But it also troubles me that, even as bad as the storm was, it did not stop many people from working. First and foremost, it did not stop the unsung heroes on whom we depend so heavily in both inclement and mild weather: law enforcement personnel, firefighters and ambulance drivers, road crews (especially snow plow operators!), hospital and medical personnel, electric and other utility crews, and even retailers (grocery, hardware, fuel etc.) and their suppliers on whom we depend for access to daily provisions. The list goes on, and my hat is off to all of them.

But I also think of other merchants, particularly small businesses that chose to stay open as much as they possibly could. My brother is co-owner of a small auto-repair business in Northern Virginia. Snow or no snow, he had customers’ cars in his shop that needed repair, and there was plenty of other work to be done. So after he dug out of his own driveway, he hopped into his four wheel drive and dug out his place of business. My son-in-law also went to work just about every day this week. He works for his dad’s small software business as a database administrator. Snow or no snow, the company must continue to service its customers around the country, so the two of them hopped into the four wheel drive and made it to the office. Allowing for others to take unscheduled leave, they managed to put together enough of a skeleton crew to continue operations.

In both instances, these small businesses had a motivation that is not readily apparent to the public sector. They must work in order to provide goods and services and sell them at a profit. They must balance their books and make payroll. And they must do so effectively and efficiently so as to earn and keep the trust and continued business of their customers. And in so doing, they also employ others, allowing them to make a living and pay taxes, which are used in part to pay the salaries of government personnel like me.

With all sincerity, I say "thank you". You too are my heroes.

[i] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Government is the Nation's largest employer, with about 2.0 million civilian employees, , excluding the Postal Service. About 85 percent of Federal employees work outside the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

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