The Office of Personnel Management is urging federal agencies to take advantage of telework to help protect government employees from health risks associated with the poor air quality and smog surrounding Washington, D.C., as a result of Canadian wildfires.

Midday on Thursday and several days into worsening air conditions, OPM Director Kiran Ahuja issued a memo to all federal agencies saying they’re “encouraged to permit employees, particularly those with high-risk medical conditions, to telework from home on a day when air quality conditions are dangerous.”

Other options available include working a flexible schedule to if they need to leave early or report late. Employees can also use annual leave, paid time off or credit hours. However, nothing in the memo forces agency heads to offer additional flexibilities, and employees may not wish to dip into PTO reserves for this.

More than 600 U.S. firefighters and support personnel are being deployed north of the border along with firefighting equipment to help Canada tackle what is shaping up to be the worst fire season in the nation’s history. The National Interagency Fire Center is also responding to the fires, particularly in Quebec, where smoke from the fires is having the most direct impact on U.S. communities.

“This morning, millions of Americans are experience the effects of smoke resulting from devastating wildfires burning in Canada, another stark reminder of the impacts of climate change,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Thursday. He directed the Department of Transportation to monitor air traffic implications, the EPA to track the deteriorating air quality and the CDC to update health guidance in response to the disaster.

Washington D.C.’s operating status for federal workers is currently “normal,” which has has not changed from Wednesday. That means means employees are expected to begin each workday on time and there aren’t any updates for unscheduled leave or telework.

According to the American Red Cross, 13 states have alerted residents about poor air quality as a result of smoke and particles drifting from some 400 wildfires burning in Canada. Because the wind patterns are carrying the burning ash and other particles to the Southeast United States, Eastern metro areas like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and D.C. are being affected, according to Sam Ausby, a Federal Aviation Administration official who discussed effects on air travel in a Twitter video.

The Red Cross advises, above all, to stay inside and away from the smoggy air. Those with asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, heart disease, who are pregnant and children and first responders are at heightened risk. If you’re driving in a car, keep the windows closed and turn on the “recirculate” setting on your air conditioning controls.

According to AirNow, the air condition for Washington D.C. is rated “very unhealthy,” meaning everyone — no matter your health condition — should avoid exercising outdoors and remain indoors.

The National Weather Service’s local forecast for Friday and Saturday indicates air quality will still be risky for those with health conditions that might make it harder to breathe.

Other Capital-region businesses and events, like the National Zoo and the Washington National’s baseball game on Thursday, have been closed and canceled.

The National Park Service’s National Mall division said in a Tweet Thursday that it’s “scaling back our employees’ outdoor activity & encourage everyone to limit their exposure to the smoke.”

The FAA said in a Twitter video it’s slowing things down and allowing aircraft to have more room to maneuver until they can land safely with compromised visibility.

Yahoo News also reported that a Pride Month event that would’ve been held at the White House Thursday has been postponed due to the weather conditions.

Changes to the Washington D.C. area operating status can be found on OPM’s website or by downloading the OPM Alert Mobile App.

TELL US: Is your federal agency modifying operations to due to air quality concerns? Did you alter your commute or work plans to avoid being outdoors? Tell us how you’ve been impacted as a federal employee by reaching out to our tip line:

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Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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