Massive D.C. Subway Closure Shows Need for Continuity Plans

Metro shutdown prompts HR professionals to plan for emergencies

By Aliah D. Wright Mar 16, 2016
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Emergency inspections will close Metrorail, the massive subway system for Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, all day on Wednesday, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without their usual mode of transportation to work.

It is the first time the region’s major public transportation system, operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), has closed for safety reasons. All six Metrorail lines and all 91 stations are closed today.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent statistics from 2012, nearly 400,000 people use mass transit each day in the metropolitan D.C. area to get to work. Riders made 712,843 trips per weekday on Metro in fiscal year 2015, WMATA found.

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which decides if federal workers must report to their jobs during emergencies—usually snowstorms—announced Tuesday night that business would go on as usual, but that federal employees could take unscheduled leave or telework Wednesday.

“To help alleviate the transportation difficulties that may be associated with the temporary Metrorail closure, OPM is encouraging all agencies to allow their employees to take full advantage of this ‘change of status,’ and permit their employees to telework, take leave, or use their AWS [alternate work schedule] day off,” announced Samuel Schumach, OPM’s press secretary, in a news release.

HR Weighs In

HR professionals attending the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) 2016 Employment Law & Legislative Conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C. told SHRM Online that emergencies like these are why employers need business continuity plans and that employers should treat today’s closure as if it were a snow emergency.

“Boston area employers had a similar situation last year when the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority]… was shut down for an extended period last winter,” said Jim Reidy, an attorney and chair with the Labor and Employment Law Group, Sheehan Phinney of Manchester, N.H.

Reidy, an expert on telework, spoke on the topic during a session Tuesday.

“The initial cause was a major snow storm,” Reidy said. However, “snow removal complicated by mismanagement caused commuters to flock to already congested highways, only to find inadequate parking [in the city]. Many chose to stay home and telework. Rather than lose hours of work with employees stuck in traffic, employers opted to have employees connect from home.

“That transportation crisis went on for weeks, but D.C.-area employers, especially government employers, are actually more accustomed to shutdowns because of winter weather or budget standoffs,” he added.

Reidy advised employers to ask all nonessential personnel, and perhaps some essential personnel, stay home and take paid leave time or telework to avoid overtaxing buses and taxis, which will already be handling the seasonal influx of tourists and convention attendees.

“This is a great example of why having a telework policy is important,” added SHRM’s Director of Congressional Affairs Lisa Horn. She is also the co-leader of SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative. She said business continuity strategies are important specifically for this reason.

Reidy advised HR to have an emergency contingency plan in place for situations like this, with:

  • A communication plan.
  • Website and e-mail check-ins for work assignments and recording work hours.
  • Transportation suggestions such as carpooling and parking.
  • Lists of essential personnel and workers who are authorized and set up to telework.

Ryan Namata, the senior specialist for chief HR executive engagement for HR People + Strategy, a SHRM affiliate, said that at least in this situation, OPM had plenty of time to notify government employees about the option to telework and take unscheduled leave. Many organizations and businesses in the Washington, D.C., region follow OPM’s lead during weather emergencies and ask their employees to telework, too.

“Sometimes OPM doesn’t make the call until 4 a.m. Those who can telecommute should,” he said.

But not everyone will be able to telecommute.

Reidy added that “some Congressional offices have e-mailed their staff members [who don’t normally telework] to make their way in. Perhaps it’s the relatively short time in session or the fact that this isn’t a major snowstorm and there are other, albeit slower, ways to get to Capitol Hill.”

Metro General Manager and CEO Paul J. Wiedefeld announced the emergency inspections Tuesday, saying they were due to a cable fire that lead to major delays on trains Monday. In a news release on Metro’s website, Wiedefeld said the fire on Monday was “disturbingly similar” to one that lead to the death of an Alexandria, Va., woman when smoke filled a Metro tunnel in January 2015.

Metrorail is expected to re-open Thursday at 5 a.m. 

Aliah D. Wright is an editor/manager for SHRM Online.

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