From the survey results, 11% of responding utilities reported they had stand-alone pandemic plans in place before the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas 28% of respondents addressed pandemic planning as part of other plans, and other utilities developed them in response to the pandemic. Along with pandemic plans, many systems conducted pandemic-specific training.
Employee Housing and Feeding
Only 9% of the responding systems reported taking various steps to house and feed critical personnel, but those that did focused on treatment plant operators. Employee housing arrangements included dedicated sleeping spaces, household and hygiene amenities, communications and entertainment resources, and cleaning services. Some systems provided cots, linens, and/or sleeping bags for employees to sleep in utility facilities, while others rented camper trailers or recreational vehicles (RVs) for on-site employee housing. Some systems also allowed employees to set up their own camper trailers on the facility campus. Although these on-site employee housing programs often evolved significantly during the early months of the pandemic, most of the systems that used them were generally pleased with the approach.
“The on-site housing plan was very successful,” said Ted Corrigan, chief executive officer and general manager of Des Moines Water Works in Iowa. “It allowed our folks who were sequestered to get the rest they needed to stay positive and productive. Sequestering was expensive, but it was the right thing for us as we worked to get other protective measures in place.”
However, three systems reported that isolated housing was emotionally difficult for their employees to sustain, resulting in early termination of that arrangement.
“One of our after-action report items captured how we as management underestimated the desire of our folks to return to their families at the end of each workday—even if a workday was 24 hours,” said Robert K. Fullagar, vice president of operations at Middlesex Water Company (N.J.), which decided not to house employees. “They told us they would do whatever we needed them to do, just please let us go home to see our families. One of the items on our improvement plan will be considering the use of RVs for essential individuals and allowing family members to join them.”
Water and wastewater systems provided food to employees in several ways. Some provided on-site food for employees while on the job to minimize their need to go to stores or restaurants to get their worktime meals. After the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, most provisions for on-site housing and food were terminated, but these practices may prove valuable in the future.
Just 7% of water systems reported making special compensation to employees, and the means they used to do so varied because of local drivers.
Changes in Compliance Sampling Procedures
Some systems installed permanent compliance sampling sites before the pandemic, eliminating the need to enter buildings to take samples. Some systems were in the process of installing remote monitoring sites before the pandemic, while others reported efforts to install sampling sites only after the start of the pandemic.
Several wastewater systems, particularly in locations with major research universities, are participating in studies to use SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection in wastewater to indicate the continuing or re-emerging presence of COVID-19 in their service populations. In some locations, this approach is now specifically used to identify the presence of COVID-19 in university dormitories.