Despite being in the first U.S. county to record a case of COVID-19, Washington State’s 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 ground work.
“A couple years ago, we took a strong step toward creating a culture of safety built on the principle that the health, safety and well-being of our employees, customers communities is most important,” John Haarlow, CEO and general manager of the public power utility, said. “That’s the lens by which all of our decisions have been made, and has driven us to focus on reducing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus very early on.”
When the first COVID-19 case was documented in Snohomish County at the end of January, the deadly potential of the disease was still not well understood. By the end of February, that had changed when COVID-19 outbreaks appeared and spread in nursing homes in the region, resulting in several dozen deaths.
At around the same time, Snohomish PUD took its first steps to protect against the spread of the disease among employees and customers. “The first message we drove home was, ‘If you don’t feel well, or if things are going on with your family – it doesn’t have to be exact symptoms – stay home,’” Haarlow said.
By March 6, the PUD had implemented its Pandemic Response Plan. On March 11, the utility cancelled the use of its facilities for public meetings until June 1 and asked employees to cancel any public meetings. On March 13, the PUD closed its offices to the public.
Meanwhile, to ease the financial pain on customers who might be out of work because of social distancing measures, the utility paused electric service disconnections, waived late fees and began offering flexible payment schedules.
The PUD also was making several changes to keep employees safe and minimize the spread of the COVID-19. The utility has transitioned about three-quarters of its employees to work from home and has restructured how work crews perform their jobs.
It took about a week to set up employees to work remotely, Haarlow said. The utility’s information technology (IT) department worked with those employees not only to set up the technical aspects of their home offices, such as setting up a virtual private network (VPN) to help ensure digital security, but to set up their offices in an ergonomic way. In some cases, that meant arranging for employees to get their office chairs to their houses. “Our IT group hit it out of the park,” Haarlow said.
The transition to working from home even included Snohomish’s 75 to 80 customer service representatives (CSR), which required the installation and testing of CSR data, equipment and software. All but five of Snohomish’s CSRs are now working remotely.
The PUD also set up a community support program that gives bill credits and reductions to customers affected by COVID-19. And the utility empowered CSR staff to work with customers on payment plans based on customers’ specific circumstances.
Some jobs, such as repairing power lines, cannot be done remotely. For those employees, Snohomish PUD restructured their work shifts. Field work crews are small, five or six people. Typically, crews would intermingle when coming off shift, but now there is no intermingling and the same people will work on the same crew for the duration of the crisis in order to prevent the possibility of cross contamination that could inadvertently spread the disease.
In some cases, crew members go directly from their cars to their trucks, building in an additional barrier to prevent the spread of the virus. Cleaning crews are also coming in between shifts to clean equipment and work stations, for both field crews and crews working in the utility’s operations center.
In late March, the utility also put a temporary pause on meter reading. “It was not an easy decision,” utility spokesman Aaron Swaney said, but “leadership decided that the safety of our employees and customers was paramount and made the tough decision to institute estimated billing.”
Very quickly people from the utility’s customer service, finance, IT and corporate communications departments came together and devised a plan “to think of out-of-the-box solutions to best serve the customer,” Swaney said. “For example, we’re now letting customers take a photo of their meter and submit it for an actual, instead of estimated, read. We’re also running ads on radio and print to inform customers of their options.”
Longer term, Haarlow says there could be some follow-on effects from the pandemic. Load and revenues are likely to decline but that could be offset by reductions in capital costs. Snohomish is going to be “re-prioritizing” its budget for this and next year, Haarlow said.
The utility’s pandemic response could also bring other changes. For instance, Snohomish has discussed telecommuting in the past but now, “we see that we can do it well. It can be effective and cost effective,” Haarlow said. In the long run, he added, “we will be better on the backside of this.”
One of the lessons Haarlow has taken from the pandemic to date is the value of advance planning. He cited the incident plan put in place a couple years ago by Doug Williams, the utility’s security and business continuity manager.
“It helped us get off to a good start,” Haarlow said. “We were able to come right out of the gate with a plan in place, and the emergency operations center was ready to go, even in mid-February, and play offense.”
Preparing a plan, rehearsing it and factoring in the worst case scenario, helped the PUD get off to a good start, Haarlow said. With those preparations in place, the PUD has been able “to show what we are made of and lead the way.”