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Kate Zerrenner headshot

Utility Workers, the Forgotten Heroes of this Pandemic

Many of us have forgotten another critical essential job that must go on during the COVID-19 pandemic: utility workers who keep our water clean and lights on.
By Kate Zerrenner
Utility Workers

We’re grateful for nurses, doctors, physician assistants, respiratory therapists and so many others in the medical field. We’re also grateful for people who work in grocery stores, the restaurants delivering and offering curbside food, and all the delivery workers bringing packages to those of us self-quarantining or social distancing at home. When sending up thanks for all these people, many of us forget another critical job that must go on during the COVID-19 pandemic: utility workers who keep our water clean and flowing and our lights — and laptops — on.

Utility workers face several challenges in the midst of this pandemic

Utilities out of necessity already have disaster plans in place. Depending on where in the country a utility is based, such planning could account for a wildfire, drought, flood, hurricane, tornado, or any number of other potential disasters. Many utilities also have flu pandemic plans, which typically include contingencies for “high absenteeism” related to public health, disruptions to the supply chain, and limited support staff available. That preparedness is proving to be a help now.

According to a recent report from Edison Electric Institute, electric utilities could expect up to 40 percent to be out sick or quarantined. This at a time when everyone who can is working from home, increasing demand for both water and electricity. One utility executive told TriplePundit that contingency plans run several layers: He has two backups for every essential worker, and that person has two backups and on and on.

At the same time, this executive noted that social distancing is a challenge when two utility workers are in a truck together. These issues are even more troubling for small utilities, where potential staffing shortages could spell disaster. Several utilities across the country have started compiling lists of volunteer operators from retired workers and neighboring utilities just in case.

How utility workers are doing their jobs in a much different world

Austin Energy (AE) is one utility that agreed to speak with 3p. We reached out to the company to find out what it had instituted in the face of COVID-19. The utility activated an Incident Command System at the beginning of March and formed a “Pandemic Planning Team” that meets virtually every day. Almost 70 percent of AE’s staff are teleworking and the rest, including line workers and some call center staff, have to report to job sites as essential personnel. Those essential workers have a daily temperature screening, observe social distancing where possible, and sanitize equipment regularly. Fortunately for these workers, so far Austin is not a hot spot.

The same cannot be said for New York City, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Utility workers there face a starker reality. As of publication, Con Edison, the utility serving the city, has 170 confirmed cases and three deaths with about half of its personnel working remotely. Likewise, throughout the state, utilities are feeling the pressure.

For example, the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), the grid operator for New York state, has some essential staff living at control centers outside Albany in response to the shelter-in-place guidance at operation hubs from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Likewise, 200 National Grid personnel are living on-site and will be replaced by a second set of 200 after a month, continuing to cycle as long as necessary.

Water utilities face the same hurdles, as well as additional challenges. There are a lot more water utilities across the country than electric utilities, and many of them are very small, some with staff in the single digits. Further, some utilities have to deal with keeping water systems going when people are flushing disinfecting wipes down the toilet, clogging up sewer lines. As with the case of the power generation sector, utility workers who staff water systems across the U.S. are also sheltering in place to ensure continued, reliable service.

Vulnerable populations are at more risk now

Many people in this country were vulnerable before the pandemic and are more so now. In response, many U.S. utilities are suspending cutoffs, ensuring that customers who are unable to pay their utility bills will not be left in the cold without power and water. Some communities are lagging behind in this regard, but will have to rise to the occasion as the situation worsens.

Detroit, for example, is emerging as the latest hot spot for COVID-19, and the vulnerability of its population, including pockets of poor water and air quality, could exacerbate the situation. Ensuring at the very least that people in those communities are not shut off from their utilities is the right thing to do.

We should continue to thank and laud the frontline medical personnel, food service and grocery personnel, and delivery drivers. They deserve gratitude, protection and fair compensation. While most of us do not think about where our electricity or water comes from, as we are sheltering in place in our homes, let's remember the utility workers who keep our lights on and our taps flowing are on the front lines, too.

Image credit: Kelly Lacy/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner