Snow causes unhappy returns for furloughed workers Clogged routes create nightmares in D.C.

January 12, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The frustration of federal employees over being away from work so long was replaced yesterday by the equally maddening experience of needing so much time to get back to it.

"First day back on the job -- and it was hell getting back," said Adrienne Des Etages, an administrator with the Justice Department who ended her three-week budget-related furlough and three-day snow absence with a drive to work from her Washington home that took five times its usual 15 minutes.

On the 7 a.m. one-stop Metro ride from her parking lot to the department, there was standing-room-only on a train that usually has few passengers. Her troublesome commute was common as federal employees in the nation's capital trudged back to work. With a new storm expected to hit today, federal employees could find themselves sitting at home again.

The decision on whether to close the government again today is to be made early this morning by James B. King, director of the Office of Personnel Management.

With one in three Metro trains snowbound in their rail yards and many roads snow-clogged by the blizzard, the return to work yesterday became a joyless journey in overcrowded carriages and snail-paced traffic.

At the height of rush hour, it took up to 45 minutes just to enter the Metro station at the Pentagon, a transfer point for thousands of bus travelers from Virginia.

On the platform, crowds stood 15 deep as trains pulled in and pulled out, too packed to take more passengers. There was even talk of needing the sort of "pushers" who routinely cram passengers into Tokyo's always-bursting underground trains.

As the crowds poured into a subway system operating at only 65 percent capacity, they found fewer and shorter trains. The reason: About 35 percent of the trains were still being dug out of snowdrifts at their yards.

Defending the decision to reopen the government despite the poor state of the District of Columbia Metro system and roads and the prospect of up to another foot of snow today, Mr. King said: "Yes, it was worth it. If you are doing nothing else, you are responding to phone calls, and you are opening your mailbox. In some of the places there were bags and bags of mail. We have got to get started."

He also noted that keeping the district's 287,000 nonpostal federal workers at home disrupted federal services and cost the government $70 million a day. Some 110,000 of those workers had been ready to end their three-week furlough just as the snow descended late last week.

On his own commute from Virginia, Mr. King took 18 minutes to travel the last two blocks to his E Street office because only one of the road's five lanes was open. Some of his workers told him they needed two hours to cover the last 1 1/2 miles to the office.

So bad was the crush at some stations that Metro buses ferried some waiting passengers to other stations, where they had a better chance of getting on a train. Some frustrated inner-city travelers even boarded trains to farther-out stations in the hope of getting on a train for the ride back into town to their original destinations.

One key factor in the crush: With so many suburban cars locked in by snowdrifts, more commuters turned to public transportation. By 9 a.m. yesterday, the Metro system had sold 151,536 tickets, compared with 146,000 on a normal day.

"It's clear they are not driving," said Cheryl Johnson, a Metro spokeswoman.

By yesterday afternoon, the district had spent $2.6 million on its snow-clearing operation, $500,000 more than its entire snow budget for this winter, officials said. President Clinton yesterday offered federal disaster assistance to the district to help it cope with the aftermath of the blizzard.

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