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Posted at 3:02 PM ET, 01/27/2011

OPM chief John Berry says he made the right call on letting fed workers off early for snow

By Lisa Rein
Lisa Rein

Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry said Thursday that despite a hellish evening commute as thousands of federal workers headed home during Wednesday's snowstorm, he would have made the same call to dismiss them two hours early at 3 p.m.

The region's 300,000 civil servants work on staggered schedules, and Berry said he expected that many government workers would have been on the road way before the storm was at full throttle by 4 p.m.

"Our hope was that the majority would be on the road before 4 in the afternoon" when the storm's fierce winds and precipitation were pelting the region, Berry said. "But the reality is with human nature being what it is, many people did not choose to take advantage of the option" to leave early.

RELATED: When did you leave the office on Wednesday?

"They looked out the window, saw no snow, and said, 'I can wait until I see snow,'" he said. "Anybody who waited to leave by that point was caught in a historic [traffic] nightmare."

One of Berry's aides stayed after 3 p.m. and regretted the decision after it took her hours to get to Northern Virginia. Thousand of commuters were stuck in their cars for hours in gridlocked roads as the heavy snow came down.

A majority of federal workers start their shifts between 6 and 8 a.m. Berry said he made the two-hour early dismissal decision Wednesday shortly after a conference call at 10 a.m. with the National Weather Service and more than 100 local, state and federal officials.

When no snow had fallen by 3 p.m, "I thought, oh boy, did I just let the entire government go early for no reason?" Berry said. "But the weather service nailed it exactly right."

Berry said he could not force anyone to leave early. Many employees who have permission from their managers to telework did stay home, Berry said.

Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

By Lisa Rein  | January 27, 2011; 3:02 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Agencies and Departments  
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Comments

I thought the two hour FED leave policy was fair. If two hours wasn't enough some people they should have put in a leave slip for what was needed to get home safely.

Posted by: ADmom | January 27, 2011 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Since he knew the snow was coming by 3 he should have shut things down at 1! Major fail.

Posted by: Observer691 | January 27, 2011 3:34 PM | Report abuse

So, this shows that Federal workers are dedicated. Had they really been as lazy as some claim they are, they would have jumped at the excuse to go home.

Posted by: jay_em_gee | January 27, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

Berry made a HUGE error in judgment to save money and should be fired. Because he knows that, he's trying to cover his ass and suggest that he was smart to let people out early. Seriously? He's lucky if no one died from that cluster !@#$$ he created. He knew by at least 11:00 am that the Weather Service was calling for dangerous conditions to begin at or around 3:00, when rush hour starts to kick in. If he didn't know, he should have. He should have had the government with rolling closures starting at 11:00 and done by 2:00. Instead, he put hundreds of thousands of people at serious safety risk.

Posted by: krab76 | January 27, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The point Mr Berry... is to release people BEFORE it gets bad... not just when it IS getting bad! YOU BLEW IT!!!

Posted by: wildfyre99 | January 27, 2011 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't know how he, in good conscience, could defend this decision. I left work at 3 PM and it took me 6 hours to get to Loudoun County. My bus got stuck several times and eventually could not get out. We had to walk several miles on icy roads in the storm to get to our cars. Of course, that was only the beginning.

You don't start the commute when a vicious storm, fully predicted, is about to hit from west to east. Many of the major roadways were to the west - 66, 267, and 7 - and were simply impassable for long stretches of time.

He should do the decent thing and admit that they erred and aim for doing better in the future. What a disgrace to defend this.

Posted by: tpricci | January 27, 2011 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I'm a federal employee and agree with the decision, what Mr. Berry doesnot know is that some managers will not dismiss employees even when OPM has given the ok.Managers sight the importance of meeting deadlines and some are not sympathetic to those with childcare issues/concerns. I will commend OPM on the new language it has added clarifying for employees/managers what the delays/early departures/telework mean... We can't please everyone but the quickness of the information being relayed from OPM is awesome...

Posted by: love2share | January 27, 2011 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Berry should resign.

Between this and opening during Snowmaggedon, it's time for him to go.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 27, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

the decision to let Feds leave two hours prior to their normal departure times was correct. I left at 3 pm and was one of the last folks out of my building. Its took over an hour to get from Arlington to Springfield (twice as long as it should) but I was still home before the weather turned truly ugly.

Posted by: mallemployee | January 27, 2011 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Where does he get that stat that the majority of federal workers start between 6 and 8 AM... ? Does he have some official numbers to back that... I say BS... in my office I'd say the norm is between 8 and 9 AM -- meaning 5pm is our regular departure time and 3pm was 2 hours early.. I left a 3 and it took me till 8pm to get home... 5 hours from Tysons to Manassas.... This guy is a hack....

Posted by: wvmouser2 | January 27, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Where does he get that stat that the majority of federal workers start between 6 and 8 AM... ? Does he have some official numbers to back that... I say BS... in my office I'd say the norm is between 8 and 9 AM -- meaning 5pm is our regular departure time and 3pm was 2 hours early.. I left a 3 and it took me till 8pm to get home... 5 hours from Tysons to Manassas.... This guy is a hack....

Posted by: wvmouser2 | January 27, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

The Feds are now pushing Telework. What a fiasco and farce. If the Feds eliminate Telework and make employees accountable to their bosses on a daily basis, productivity will increase and cost savings will occur. The people in my office who Telework are the ones who never do anything while they're IN the office so I can just imagine what they're doing while at home...

Posted by: rpcv84 | January 27, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

The Feds are now pushing Telework. What a fiasco and farce. If the Feds eliminate Telework and make employees accountable to their bosses on a daily basis, productivity will increase and cost savings will occur. The people in my office who Telework are the ones who never do anything while they're IN the office so I can just imagine what they're doing while at home...

Posted by: rpcv84 | January 27, 2011 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Gives "armchair quarterbacking" a whole new meaning. I guess that if people did not second guess, very few comments would be posted.

Posted by: elwoll | January 27, 2011 4:24 PM | Report abuse

Not only should the gov't have been closed sooner yesterday, but it should also have been closed today. When the spokespeople for Maryland and Virginia DOT both get on the morning news and beg people to stay home for the day, that's probably a good indicator that the gov't should be closed.
This wasn't a localized storm that only impacted the northern part of MoCo or Loudoun. This paralyzed the entire region.

Posted by: erlaneyva | January 27, 2011 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Funny, I'm a Fed and I had read the reports that said "don't be on the roads by 4". So even though in theory my early release would have had me go at 3, because I had to get my son from daycare, I simply left earlier. So I took some leave. Our managers were going around and advising people to 'take off when you have to not to be trapped". At some point, you have to look around and say this is what I need to do to be safe and don't wait for some bureaucrat to tell you what to do. I would have left at the time I did, even if OPM had said nothing. I've never worked in an office where common sense didn't prevail and people weren't able to deal with crises. What is this "my boss wouldn't 'let me' go"? One of the joys of being a Fed is that it's actually pretty hard for your boss to fire you without review and a massive string of documentation, so if this is your only infraction, they can't do anything. If you felt it was unsafe to remain where you were, you should have left. Period. This is the DC area -- you know the roads go to pot with the smallest snowflake, so think ahead.

Posted by: lilyg25 | January 27, 2011 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I thought it was the correct decision. The main issue was the severity of the storm and fact that rain washed away pre-treatment causing the terrible road conditions. How would feds leaving at regular time have improved yesterday? Close at noon or 1pm before storm was visible and people would have screamed about lazy feds, waste of money, etc.

Posted by: fed15 | January 27, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

I don't think OPM deserves any blame here. Trying to guess about snow dismissals is probably the hardest thing a personnel administrator has to do. Had OPM let everyone out too early, the GOP house would have hauled them up there for a hearing on wasting taxpayer money in a nanosecond. Maybe an extra hour would have helped, but it's just hard to predict how these things play out.

If I had to finger someone for the blame, I would point it at our state and local governments who have let our roads get so congested that there's no resiliency. A few flakes causes headaches; a badly-timed hard snow like the one yesterday causes unbelievable nightmares.

I would also like to point the finger at all the idiot drivers who launched into yesterday's commute in vehicles inappropriate for the weather and then abandoned them in the middle of the roadway. Full gas tank + emergency kit. (And leave the rear wheel drive sports car at home.)

Posted by: JoeSchmoe06 | January 27, 2011 4:36 PM | Report abuse

DCers are such whiners. I work in MoCo and live in DC and walk as well as Metro. I left 2 hrs early (and I usually stay late) and got home with no problem. Did the reverse this morning, except I came in at the usual time, not 2 hours late. The roads were clear, the Metro was on schedule. The only impediment was the lack of shoveling in MoCo.

If there's "weather" you often take your lumps one way or another--burning leave or getting stuck in traffic. No one owes you the time or an easy commute. A huge proportion of people in this area are from the Great Lakes, Upstate NY, etc. this isn't Florida and they grew-up learning how to cope with this.

Posted by: thebuckguy | January 27, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I have learned that DC and the Feds don't necessarily make smart calls. Government should have been shut down due to the icy conditions early in the morning. I don't let OPM nor DC make any decisions for me. They've been calling for this storm for over a week and I had already made the decision not to go into the office. I can do most of my work from home anyway. I also did not attend work the following day due to the fact that the side road are a mess and icy. You have to make your own calls regarding inclement weather. Better to be safe than sorry.

Posted by: cholly85241 | January 27, 2011 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I have learned that DC and the Feds don't necessarily make smart calls. Government should have been shut down due to the icy conditions early in the morning. I don't let OPM nor DC make any decisions for me. They've been calling for this storm for over a week and I had already made the decision not to go into the office. I can do most of my work from home anyway. I also did not attend work the following day due to the fact that the side road are a mess and icy. You have to make your own calls regarding inclement weather. Better to be safe than sorry.

Posted by: cholly85241 | January 27, 2011 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I have learned that DC and the Feds don't necessarily make smart calls. Government should have been shut down due to the icy conditions early in the morning. I don't let OPM nor DC make any decisions for me. They've been calling for this storm for over a week and I had already made the decision not to go into the office. I can do most of my work from home anyway. I also did not attend work the following day due to the fact that the side road are a mess and icy. You have to make your own calls regarding inclement weather. Better to be safe than sorry.

Posted by: cholly85241 | January 27, 2011 4:48 PM | Report abuse

The government should have closed by 1 pm, allowing people more time to safely commute home. The two-hour early dismissal meant that many people were in the midst of their commutes when the storm hit, creating nightmarish conditions. They also should have coordinated more with Metro, as trains were crammed to the gills and backed up, and buses seemed to be nonexistent.

Posted by: lgp2 | January 27, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

When one employer controls the release time of hundreds of thousands of commuters, they have the responsibility to anticipate the impact of releasing them on the local road clearing and general public safety. Berry failed that test, and the proof is what happened last night. While some people may have felt secure enough to leave earlier than their release time, most would not and there are no policies to protect those who determined their own departure time from discipline if their managers did not agree with their decision. Off with his head!

Posted by: krab76 | January 27, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

I also don't think OPM deserves blame for this one. (True, in hindsight, maybe 3-4 hours early would have been better.) In my agency, we work a variety of staggered schedules, and most people were gone well before 3 even if they had to use some leave time. (I stayed until 4, because my usual time is 6 and I had a project to finish. But I take Metro, which was (surprisingly!) fine.)

A huge number of government employees take public transit, so I wonder how much of the traffic fiasco was attributable to feds anyway, as compared to the private sector (though I realize that SOME employers -- not my previous ones, but some -- follow OPM's lead).

But I do wonder how many people would now be calling for Berry's head for overreacting if the storm had arrived later, or had been less severe than it was. And you KNOW that, had OPM just closed the government entirely in anticipation of an afternoon storm, there would be plenty of blustering from Republicans (among others) about lazy, coddled government workers getting a free day off and wasting taxpayer money.

Posted by: Janine1 | January 27, 2011 5:03 PM | Report abuse

By an large all the public sector services did a pretty good job.

The problems with the commute were almost entirely to drivers not knowing how to drive in the conditions.

I-66 Centreville exit was blocked for over an hour by people who were too scared to drive down it. Reasonable if you don't feel confident, but you can't also block the only travel lane while doing so.

I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid and there was absolutely no conditions that made me even remotely lose control of my vehicle. The only time I was ever out of control was after being cut off and having to hit my brakes too hard and I started sliding sideways into an already stranded car. Only another driver error caused the problem.

We saw just how bad DC drivers in general are in the snow this time. There was very little margin for error to be sure, but everything was plenty passable with sane behavior behind the wheel.

Posted by: rpixley220 | January 27, 2011 5:09 PM | Report abuse

OPM made the right call. In hindsight, though, they should have allowed employees to take unscheduled leave/telework. At some point, we Feds have to take responsibility for our own safety, child care needs, etc., when inclement weather is predicted. Use your leave--that's what is's for.

Posted by: goskins21 | January 27, 2011 5:19 PM | Report abuse

When one employer controls the release time of hundreds of thousands of commuters, they have the responsibility to anticipate the impact of releasing them on the local road clearing and general public safety. Berry failed that test, and the proof is what happened last night. While some people may have felt secure enough to leave earlier than their release time, most would not and there are no policies to protect those who determined their own departure time from discipline if their managers did not agree with their decision. Off with his head!

Posted by: krab76 | January 27, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I think Mr. Berry did what he could. I work in Tenley town and metro to Van Dorn. At 3pm, there wasn't much happening outside and I, like most of my colleagues, were still busy trying to get work done. By 3:30 when I tried to leave, I knew something was heading in and it was going to be a rough commute for anyone.

The thing is, no one I worked with even knew about the weather or the early release until the email was sent out. We were all busy working and most of us stayed past 3pm when we got to leave. It was my problem that I didn't leave when I was told to, not his decision.

Basically it was going to suck for everyone regardless of what time we left. In a city where rain causes a 2 hour delay and we are in constant bumper to bumper traffic during rush hour, there is really little anyone can do. Perhaps we should all take some time and reflect on how many cars we have in DC and how that is a problem in itself. No amount of planning is going to help a snowstorm like that with our excessive use of cars.

Finally, Mr. Berry has to balance the fact that the government loses that productivity, i.e. money, for every hour he sends someone home and the safety of the workers. Something that isn't so easy to do.

Posted by: brianhoxie | January 27, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I don't work for the federal government, but I do work for one of the thousands of NGO's in the DC area who also follow the OPM schedule. The DC metro traffic is horrible on a good day...why would OPM assume everyone leaving at 3 pm would beat a storm that all forecasters predicted would be arriving at 4 or 5 pm? That's just not realistic for well over a million people who have hour plus daily commutes into the suburbs. OPM had the power to prevent yesterday's dangerous situation and failed miserably. My guess is that the extra 2 hours OPM could have given workers yesterday would have been far better than losing the productivity of thousands of workers who called in sick today out of sheer exhaustion from last night's commute.

Posted by: flyingsolo228 | January 27, 2011 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Ok, so let me see if I've got this straight. You're blaming the head of OPM for because you got stuck in traffic hell? You didn't know there was a major storm coming? You didn't watch the news & weather reports? I'm sorry, but really folks... if you were so worried about getting home on time - or even safely - then you should have taken it upon yourselves to grab your coats & leave. This is why you earn annual leave each pay period. So use it! But don't blame someone else because you decided - for whatever reason - to stay at work & then get caught in the inevitable quagmire.

Posted by: jlp22204 | January 27, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

Berry should have just apologized instead of making excuses. The Capital Weather Gang predicted this storm perfectly. Berry set a policy that prevented thousands of federal workers from getting home safety.

Further, it doesn't sound like he has any idea of the hours that federal workers keep. If a federal program or service is open until 5:30 or 6, coverage continues until 3:30 or 4 with a two hour early dismissal. He should have set a 1 or 2 o'clock dismissal based on the forecasts.

Posted by: bperk420 | January 27, 2011 7:18 PM | Report abuse

lilyg25 and jlp22204 said it best! It's called COMMON SENSE people. I commute from southern Prince George's County to Rockville...I knew what it was going to be like, which is exactly why I left work at 1:00pm BEFORE it started snowing, got home at 1:45 and worked from home the rest of the day. Even if I didn't have the option to work from home, I would have taken leave, that's what it's there for.
I think OPM made the right call, but only you know what's best for you. What was best for me was to get the heck outta dodge! lol

Posted by: tamrock25 | January 27, 2011 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Lesson learned. It would have been better for OPM to release workers 3-4 hours early rather than 2, to ensure that more people were off the roads and home by the time the weather began to hit. At our agency, most of the 2,000 people in our building start between 8:30 and 9:30am, so the majority left between 3 and 4pm. The agency would not independently release employees earlier without the guidance from OPM. As for this morning's late arrival and option to telework, was disappointed that OPM didn't notify media last night by 11pm broadcast. Last year Berry did a better job on letting folks know the night before so that they could plan accordingly, particularly those with kids in school.

Posted by: kmcnyasha | January 27, 2011 8:07 PM | Report abuse

It was really brutal. My ten minute walk home turned into fifteen!

Posted by: cpf218 | January 28, 2011 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Berry said that even knowing what a disastrous commute it was on Wed, he would have STILL made the same decision??!!?? I'd like to know when did he leave the office and when did he get home - by helicopter???

The fact is that many people do not actually have the option to leave when they want even if they know that leaving earlier would be safer. The point is to dismiss people early enough so they can get home BEFORE the worst of the storm hits - not just as it's hitting.

This was very poor judgement on Mr. Berry's account.

Posted by: gilberts2 | January 28, 2011 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Oh, come ON. Berry blew it. Not everyone has a leave balance permitting them to leave any earlier than allowed by the closure (or perhaps there was work that had to be done while the govt remained open), and the weather service and news agencies had made it clear by TUESDAY NITE that late afternoon WED was TOO LATE to be on the roads. Berry should have closed by at least 2:00, if not sooner. I was able to come in earlier and had anticipated taking 2 hours of leave if necessary, but not everyone has that luxury. My husband left his office at 3:40 PM in order to go the entire mile and a half to our house, and it took him over FIVE HOURS.

Posted by: Rhonda_K | January 28, 2011 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Thank you John Berry! I am an early bird, so my day normally ends at 4 PM when I leave the Pentagon. I headed the OPM early dismissal and left work at 2 PM returning home before 3 PM. My neighbor, a self declared "workaholic", also works at the Pentagon and left at 4 PM returning home around 9:30 PM. That was his call and his mistake...

Posted by: BillS9921 | January 28, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Berry made the right decision. It was announced in the late morning, so people had plenty of time to plan ahead and adjust their commuting time accordingly. Anyone paying attention to the weather news knew a big storm was on the way.

Cpf218, my experience was similar to yours. I left work at 3:15. Took the Metrorail from downtown DC to Oldtown Alexandria. Caught the bus (didn't try to walk on the ice). Was home by 4:00.

Posted by: Livelongandprosper | January 28, 2011 9:58 AM | Report abuse

Well such POTENTIAL here! So many people would have EASILY made the much more correct decision on when to start the closing.

So besides federal workers on the roads Weds, was anyone else there, or just feds, 'cause some Eintein's here blame Dir Berry but there are probably a few more employers in Wash DC than the federal government, dontcha think?

All you know-it-alls should apply for Director of OPM so that you can make the call and watch the Thomas Edisons come out of the woodwork to play Monday-morning quarterback.

You're letting your country and yourselves down if you don't - c'mon - fix America and fix the DC commute on bad weather days, heroes!

Posted by: Vzlet2 | January 28, 2011 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Sorry but Barry is an underqualified political hack, mid level Clinton-era bureaucrat whose biggest gigs before OPM were running a zoo, NGO NFWF, and staffing Steny Hoyer. He is the main HR guru to 2 million federal employees. You're doing a heck uva job, Barry! Massive FAIL, Mr. President.

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Berry_(administrator)?wasRedirected=true

Posted by: NovaDawg | January 28, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Berry doesn't do math well.

Even if a majority are on the roads at 4pm, and we ignore the fact that snow and ice started at 3pm, that still leaves a sizeable minority just leaving when he claims a majority would be gone.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | January 28, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Berry let his freak flag fly by commenting "Did I just let them go home 2 hours early for no reason". He acts like Emperor Nero wavering between thumbs up and thumbs down. This is a public safety issue, not what score the blogs give you for making a decision and being afraid of it. Like Geddy Lee said: "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

Posted by: dollarsforgoofs | January 28, 2011 11:14 AM | Report abuse

How about looking at the bigger picture: The schools let our kids out because they want them home before its dangerous. Why aren't we released at those earlier hours too? Are my kids lives more precious? What happens to our kids' future when we get injured or killed? This world has gotten too fast and too judgmental and too worried about the holy dollar - we need to go back to the past when people mattered and life was paced slow enough that family truly mattered. Family-friendly government or businesses? I'm sad to say that will never come back.

Posted by: sophia88 | January 28, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I am just flabbergasted that anybody would negatively criticize this man for his decision to release two hours early Federal employees who already leave in staggered fashion. The snow accumulated in an unusually rapid fashion. As I understand it, many employees were given the opportunity to telework, and almost all employees were given an opportunity to take annual leave. The employees have the responsibility to look after their own interests. The OPM Director is not the guarantor of their safety or convenience. He faces unparalleled criticism about the productivity of the workforce. He works in an area notorious for its citizen's unjustified unwillingness or incapacity to deal with snow conditions intelligently and to take them in stride. I wonder what percentage of stranded motorists were even Federal employees.

I've lived here for nearly 30 years and worked for the Federal Government for 23 years. People game the snow. They shouldn't. PEPCO is too cheap to use gopher cable instead of overhead wire. Many people fail to clear their driveways and sidewalks in a timely fashion. Most communities wouldn't think of co-opping on heavy duty snowblowers and the local hardware stores always run out of affordable, quality shovels. Some county and city Governments take a nap during snowstorms. The local Governments don't trim the trees timely and equip themselves with too few streetwalk plows. The schools are afraid of their own shadows (the kids are a lot more resilient than their a parents or the school systems acknowledge). Parents don't teach their children the fundamentals of driving in the snow (e.g., how to cope with skids, how to use snowbanks as a cushion; keeping shovels, scrapers, and blankets in the trunk; avoiding braking unnecessarily; fueling for the worst; the use of hard platforms; the proper use of low gears; risk assessment; abandoning cars intelligently; and, most importantly, teamwork and patience).

This has nothing to do with OPM and everything to do with a city located in the mid-Atlantic that acts like its in southern Georgia. Grow up DC metro. You have four seasons (like Philly and NYC).

Posted by: finserra | January 29, 2011 1:32 AM | Report abuse

I can't find fault with OPM's decision. Yes, he could have shut the Federal government down at 1 or 2 pm; but if the storm hadn't panned out as predicted, we'd have pages of comments from people about lazy Federal employees and wasting taxpayer dollars.

As individual adults, we do need to take ownership over our own safety. I will say from experience that it can be difficult to do when your managers are always the first in the door and the last out every day--rain, snow, sleet or shining sun. There's pressure to show your dedication to the job by being at your desk until the last possible second.

As a new manager though, I'm always the first to ask: "How are you getting home? Do you feel safe?" With new teleworking policies, it makes it easier for workers to still be productive while taking appropriate measures to get home safely. I make it a point to announce at the beginning of the day that I'm leaving at a certain time in anticipation of inclement weather, what I'm taking home to work on, and how I can be reached. And then, I make sure that my staff has made appropriate arrangements as well. I even sent some folks home on Wednesday because they wouldn't have left before 4pm.

Posted by: teejackson_93 | January 30, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

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