Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Federal government workers in the DC area are allowed to telework when it snows. Why aren’t they encouraged to do so on extreme heat days? Fortunately, there are signs of progress. During the worst of our record July heat, I asked Federal News Radio’s Amy Morris about the federal government’s heat wave telework policy. She tweeted that there’s no broad policy, only that, “The office manager has discretion depending on office conditions, etc.” Federal News Radio posts this memo on the heat from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to agency heads, which advises managers to keep employees hydrated but says nothing about teleworking. If federal government workers were allowed to telework in the most extreme heat (say, on days when the heat index is forecast to be over 105), there would be several real benefits:

  • Air quality. Extreme summer heat often goes hand in hand with unhealthy air quality in the DC area and commuter vehicles are a major contributor of pollution. With about 103,000 federal workers telecommuting in 2008 (PDF), that’s potentially a large number of tailpipes off the road.

  • Easing transportation strain. On very hot days, the wait for a tow truck for a broken-down car can be a hazard and Metro cars without air conditioning become unbearable

    hot cars.

  • More productive workers. If you have to start your day drenched in sweat, you’re not going to be at your most productive — you’re going to be watching the clock until you can go home and drink a gin & tonic the size of your head. Teleworkers, on the other hand, are scientifically proven to be more productive than their commuting counterparts.

Last week, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) wrote to OPM asking for a renewed look at encouraging telecommuting on the hottest days:

Last year I wrote to you following the blizzards and nuclear summit to ask if OPM was using telework to mitigate congestion during extreme weather or events which cause widespread street closures. I appreciate your leadership to implement telework during these events.

This summer’s weather suggests that extreme heat may also create a need for expanded telework. As you know, we have experienced nearly a month of consecutive days with 90 degree or higher temperatures, including record high temperatures and unusually high nighttime temperatures. This extreme heat is not only uncomfortable, but also exacerbates ground level ozone pollution and associated respiratory diseases.

I am aware that the Department of Homeland Security encouraged employees to take a telework day during the most extreme heat, and would appreciate your consideration of making such a practice more common across agencies. Reducing traffic and associated ozone pollution in our region will become increasingly important as extreme heat becomes more common in our region.

Adapting to DC’s oppressive summer heat isn’t a new concept. It’s why Congress takes an August recess. But at some point our attitude shifted from taking summer siestas to trying to show nature who’s boss. Anyone who’s gotten a whiff of fellow passengers on Metro lately can tell you how well that’s working out.

Of course, our climate is now even hotter than it was in DC’s early days, and it’s getting worse fast. Globally, June was 1.60°F hotter than the 20th-century average. And considering Congress hasn’t curbed America’s carbon emissions and the world has copied our inaction, we’re hurtling towards the most extreme changes.

Letting feds telework on the hottest of hot days won’t protect DC from global warming, but it would be an easy step to making it a bit more tolerable.

Miles Grant grew up in Boston riding the Green Line, and has lived in Northern Virginia riding the Orange Line since 2002. Also blogging at The Green Miles, he believes enhancing smart growth makes the DC area not just more environmentally sustainable, but a healthier and more vibrant place to live, work and play.