Early this month, Snohomish County Public Utility District in Washington State started requiring all employees in common areas or working within six feet of each other to wear masks in response to the new coronavirus outbreak.
Masks, however, weren’t available from traditional suppliers, so the public power utility and its local labor union partnered quickly to recruit volunteers to sew masks.
“Things happened quickly - a plan was put in place within a day or so determining who would make patterns, get materials, and gathering people to volunteer to sew,” said Nichole Reedy, senior assistant business manager, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77.
More than 100 utility employees volunteered for the project, according to Aaron Swaney, Snohomish County PUD spokesman. Some sewed face masks, while other washed and cut materials to make the masks, and others delivered material to the sewers and masks to employees, he said.
The last time Julie Mainstone sewed was when she made a quilt for her best friend's newborn almost 19 years ago.
“It was pretty comical,” Mainstone said of her latest sewing effort. “Between trying to figure out how to use the sewing machine and the instructions for the masks, I finally completed six out of 20 masks in six hours,” said Mainstone, the PUD’s apprentice/line training program administrator. “I was able to get the remaining 14 masks completed in five hours.”
The project’s goals included:
- Sew 160 masks made of 100 percent fire retardant materials for employees who work within the arc flash zone, such as line and substation crews. To date, more than 220 FR masks have been sewn.
- Sew 325 protective masks for employees who must work in a district facility, vehicle or on a job site.
- Sew masks for all remaining district employees and their households, if requested.
- Sew masks for people in the utility’s service area who are serving communities, including first responders and medical personnel.
So far, the volunteers have made about 1,000 masks, according to Swaney. A church and businesses have also donated masks for PUD employees and FR clothing manufacturers Dragon Wear, Tyndale and National Safety Apparel have helped source material, he said.
Also, PUD Customer Service Representative Becky Wright created a video to help employees who wanted to make masks and the utility’s safety department narrated a video walking employees though the process of cleaning and caring for masks.
With Washington possibly easing up its stay-at-home restrictions next month, the project’s next goal is to provide masks for employee family members.
Snohomish County PUD serves 350,000 electric and about 20,000 water customers. About three-quarters of the utility’s employees are working from home.
Like other utilities, Snohomish County PUD has had to respond quickly to challenging circumstances for its employees and customers.
The utility, for example, pulled its meter readers out of the field early for safety reasons and began providing estimated bills. In response to customers who may not want estimated bills, the utility recently launched a webpage that allows customers to submit their address and post a photo of their meter to have their meter read remotely, according to Swaney.
Besides stopping disconnections and late fees, Snohomish County PUD created a community support program for customers struggling to pay their bills.
The program offers bill credit for residential customers who have lost income because of the COVID-19 outbreak. It also offers bill credits for small businesses who have had their operations limited or closed.
About 2,200 customers have been helped by the program, according to Swaney.
About five years ago, Snohomish County PUD set a goal of trying to continually improve its operations, Swaney noted. “It’s paying dividends now,” he said.
In response to COVID-19, even with many workers at home, the utility is turning around projects in days that would have typically taken weeks, he said.
“It’s pretty seamless,” Swaney said.
Despite being in the first U.S. county to record a case of COVID-19, Snohomish County PUD was able to respond quickly and, to date, has not had a single employee diagnosed with the disease.
Snohomish County PUD was able to act quickly in large part because it had already laid the groundwork,