Can you keep the lights on without employees due to COVID-19?

Presented By:
Jay Spradling
Director, Security Services
Salt River Project (SRP)
TechCon 2021


As with all utility companies in the nation, Salt River Project (SRP) was forced to deal with the many issues a global pandemic brought to the table, while still providing critical power and water to their customer base. This paper will show, in somewhat of a chronological timeline, some of the flexibility, adaptation, and creative actions taken by SRP to keep their workforce safe and still fulfill its mission of delivering reliable power and water. Some broad “lessons learned” will also be shared.

Can you keep the lights on without employees due to COVID-19

Salt River Project (SRP) is a 113-year-old company that serves water and power to the Phoenix (AZ) metropolitan area. The company has a workforce of approximately 5,200 employees and about the same number of contractors. Power generation sources include fuel, steam, hydro, solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal and nuclear including 13 generation plants and 8 hydrogeneration sites that are either owned or operated by SRP. On the water side, they own or operate 8 dams, over 130 miles of major canals, and numerous smaller flood control canals throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area.

For crisis situations, SRP maintains two teams to assist the company with emergency management. The first is the Business Continuity and Emergency Management (BCEM) team. On a daily basis, BCEM is responsible for mitigation efforts and preparing the company for possible emergencies and disasters. They also support the second team, the Crisis Management Team (CMT). The CMT is made up of leaders from around the company. They only come together when an event requires a formal response and eventual recovery.

In late January 2020, a BCEM team member noticed a virus spreading in China and reported the possibility of a pandemic developing. The BCEM team oversees the CMT’s emergency plans and the team member took it upon himself to pull out the Pandemic and Infectious Disease Plan for the purpose of making sure it was up to date. This plan, although never used before, was developed during the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) pandemic.

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an Emergency of International Concern. On the same day, the U.S. Center of Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that person-to-person spread of this new virus had occurred in the U.S. About two weeks later the WHO officially named the novel coronavirus as COVID-19. At this point the virus was not a major issue in the U.S., but BCEM took the opportunity to publish an article on SRP’s internal employee webpage titled, “Stop Germs in their Tracks.” It was an attempt to start educating the workforce on good hygiene practices in order to avoid person-to-person transmission of viruses.

On February 26, the CDC confirmed possible incidents of community spread in the U.S. and briefed Congress to start preparing for a possible pandemic outbreak. BCEM took the additional step of reminding management throughout the company that it was a good time to re-familiarize themselves with their business continuity plans.

On February 29, the CDC confirmed the first death in the U.S. due to COVID-19. At that point the CMT was directed by SRP’s Executive Management (GM Staff) to convene and began addressing SRP’s response to the possible pending pandemic.

On March 2, the CMT met face-to-face for the first time in the company’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). During that meeting the CMT made the following recommendations to the GM Staff requesting that they be put in place immediately:

  • The suspension of all international business travel and limiting domestic business travel to “essential” only
  • Recommend employees not do any personal travel to CDC reported “Hot Spots,” but if they did, a 14-day home quarantine would be required
  • Implement social distancing guidelines within the company
  • Limit in-person meetings and gatherings within the company. Initially gatherings were limited to no more than 50, but that was quickly reduced to 30, and then 10. Social distancing and masks would still apply.
  • Reinforce with employees that if they felt ill or had any symptoms to stay home. Also reinforce with supervisors that anyone with flu-like symptoms were to be immediately sent home by their supervisor.
  • Reserve the limited in-stock PPE (N95 face masks, hand sanitizer, etc.) for those working in the field and more susceptible to public contacts
  • Create an employee webpage and phone hotline dedicated to providing the most current information on the virus

After the initial face-to-face meeting, the CMT transitioned to hosting a daily conference call (remote).

On March 11, the WHO formally declared COVID-19 to be a world pandemic. The next day SRP transitioned to allowing those that could work remotely to begin temporarily teleworking. This equated to just over 60% of the company. It also created several spinoff issues that needed to be addressed. The first was a process and policies for allowing company computers and peripherals to be taken home by employees. SRP company laptops have software installed on them to allow them to safely work outside of the SRP network. Office computers had to have this software installed on them before they could be taken offsite. Company printers created additional risk and were not allowed to be taken offsite. All equipment had to be approved by a supervisor. Employees in the same work areas were scheduled for when they could pick up their equipment, in order to keep employees separated from each other. Equipment had to be checked out through security personnel as it was leaving a building. Additional office equipment and furniture were not allowed to be removed from SRP facilities. SRP, working with its suppliers, was able to offer some major discounts on office furniture to employees wishing to buy items for their homes. Eventually, the company also allowed some reimbursement for office furniture and equipment.

The other 40% of the company that were unable to telework (those working in the field and those that manned 24/7 control centers) also had issues that needed to be addressed. Field work that was considered essential continued with strict social distancing and PPE requirements. A policy of no more than one person to a vehicle was implemented. This required many more vehicles to be driven to a job site. Several vehicles were also transitioned to “take home” vehicles, allowing the operators to go directly to a job site without having to first go to a facility to pick up their vehicle. This reduced many unnecessary employee contacts.

All non-essential field work was temporarily postponed. This meant that some employees were sent home for a short period of time with pay. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) required employers to provide 80 hours of sick leave for pandemic use. However, SRP decided to pay these employees for their hours at home separately from the 80 FFCRA hours available to them for other pandemic related needs. At approximately this same time, all schools in Arizona were forced to close due to the virus. This created unexpected childcare burden on some employees. The available pandemic leave could be used by those parents needing time to work out childcare issues.

Staff working in critical control centers or control rooms were required to work throughout the pandemic. In addition to several control rooms at generation plants, SRP has major 24/7 control centers for power transmission/generation, power distribution, supply & trading, water operations and security operations. Several mitigation efforts were put into place to protect these employees. The first thing to be implemented for these groups was COVID testing. Every attempt needed to be taken to keep infected personnel out of these confined workspaces. At first, a shortage of available tests made this very difficult. SRP was able to partner with researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) very early on. While traditional healthcare services and the government were struggling to stay up with testing demand, ASU was able to provide consistent and timely testing for our critical employees. Critical personnel were able to be tested twice a week with a 24 to 48-hour turnaround with the test results.

Even though most SRP buildings had very few employees physically working at them, critical control personnel were segregated as much as possible from any other staff. They were provided separate entrances/exits to their work area, separate bathroom facilities, and entrance to these facilities by other employees (custodians, IT support, etc.) were limited and heavily controlled. Some control rooms also segregated working shifts away from each other as much as possible. The realization was that if a whole shift were to be subjected to an infection and/or an exposure that other shifts would not be compromised.

If the pandemic were to cause serious staffing issues for a control center or control room, a sequestration plan was developed. The plan addresses issues like the triggering events, quarantine periods before an employee entered sequestration, the duration of sequestration rotation periods, and compensation issues. There were also different types of sequestration that could be deployed, including sheltering-in-place at home, using SRP facilities, using personally owned or company rented recreational vehicles at the worksite, and renting blocks of rooms at nearby hotels. If an SRP facility were to be used for sequestration, the plan also details specifics on providing sleeping quarters, meals, laundry and cleaning services, and areas for privacy, exercise, and downtime.

Another back-up to potential staffing issues was mutual aid. SRP met and continues to meet regularly with the other two major utilities in Arizona, Arizona Public Service (APS) and Tucson Electric Power (TEP). All three utilities are committed to providing mutual aid to each other, if required.

Staffing for SRP’s contracted services was also a concern. Two contracted services that became and have remained especially important throughout the pandemic are custodial services and contracted security personnel. The increased importance of regularly wiping down common areas and deep cleaning work areas that have experienced a virus exposure put a spotlight on custodial services. At the beginning of the pandemic, several members of the contracted custodial personnel quit their jobs out of fear of the virus. Increased demand and personnel shortages created some real challenges early on.

Since there were few to no employees at most SRP facilities, security personnel also became more important. Not only to keep a watchful eye on the buildings, but in some cases to take on additional duties they had never done before, i.e., receiving package deliveries, rebooting computers, faxing/emailing documents to employees, etc. There was not an issue with security personnel quitting due to the pandemic, but some issues did need to be addressed. For example, SRP asked its contracted security provider to change their existing sick leave policies. Although indirectly, their existing policy encouraged their personnel to go to work even when they were not feeling well. SRP asked that their staff not be penalized for calling off sick and the company quickly made the change.

With the availability of hand sanitizer in short supply, SRP entered into an agreement with a local distillery to produce hand sanitizer for the company. Soon afterward, SRP employees determined that the company itself had the resources to make hand sanitizer. SRP began producing barrels of sanitizer and created refilling stations around the company where employees and contractors could refill their own bottles.

By the end of March, the Arizona Governor issued an Executive Order encouraging residents to stay at home. The Navajo Nation also started implementing daily curfews between 8:00 PM and 5:00 AM. One of SRP’s generation stations is on Navajo land and many employees and contractors live in the community. SRP created “Essential Worker Travel Letters” for employees and contractors that might get stopped by law enforcement during these curfews. Several individuals were stopped by roadblocks on the Navajo Nation, but the essential worker letters allowed them to continue to and from their job sites.

In the first part of April, SRP suffered its first loss of an employee to COVID. The employee had been travelling internationally and had not returned to an SRP facility prior to coming down with flu-like symptoms. Due to HIPPA privacy issues, little information was put out about the death by the company. That led to a lot of speculation by employees within the company. The situation caused the company to address the issue of HIPPA privacy vs. other employees’ concerns about whether they might have been exposed or not. The end result was to timely release all information regarding safety issues for other employees, while keeping an individual’s privacy protected.

As SRP continued to evaluate the current state of the pandemic, policies and procedures were continually revised. Due to the number of employees that were regularly being tested for COVID, SRP contracted with additional healthcare professionals and begin setting up their own testing sites. Prior to this, employees were required to go to an ASU site for testing. The SRP sites were more geographically diverse and provided hours more conducive to the company’s 24/7 schedules. ASU was also one of the first to offer a saliva test to replace the more invasive nasal swab testing. SRP was quick to convert to the new saliva test, which most employees appreciated.

As the virus continued to grow and spread, one issue that SRP wrestled with was a mandatory mask policy. There were two schools of thought on the wearing masks in the workplace. One was that masks should be worn at all times and by everyone. No exceptions. The other opinion was that if working by yourself, whether in an office or in the field, you only needed to wear a mask when you were unable to socially distance from another individual. Over time SRP’s mask policy evolved into more of the second option:

  • Indoors – A mask must be worn when entering all SRP buildings and while walking around all common areas. Masks can only be removed while in one’s personal workspace and only if a minimum of 6’ of social distancing can be maintained.
  • Outdoors – Masks must be worn whenever 6’ of social distancing cannot be guaranteed from another employee or a member of the public.
  • Special Circumstances – Leadership can enact stricter mask policies for specific work sites or circumstances, e.g., the confined space of a control room or assignments with likely public contact.

While masks were still difficult to obtain, SRP contracted with a couple of local businesses to produce cloth masks for the company. In order to promote increased mask usage by employees, SRP readily provided these masks to employees while at work. At two different times the company has sent masks to every employee’s home for use by the employee and their families.

SRP employees also stepped up to help with mask issues. Employees figured out a way to scan an employee face and then use a 3D printer to create a custom-fitted mask holder. Using this process allowed the use of less expensive and more readily available KN-95 masks and get the same effectiveness of a N-95 mask. Other employees figured out a way to clean used N-95 masks and extend their life for the user.

After about a month of employees working remotely, many who were using their personal cell phones to conduct business started receiving large cell phone bills due to overruns on the minutes of their plans. SRP opted to reimburse these employees for their overrun amounts. The company also opted to move these employees to unlimited minute plans and, with SRP’s buying power, were able to make this adjustment at no additional cost to the company or the employees.

SRP considered whether a contact tracing app or device should be used with employees during workhours. Some options were reviewed, but ultimately, due to employee privacy concerns, it was decided not to use them. In May, Human Resources started doing their own contact tracing investigations after having SRP’s procedures reviewed by epidemiologists from ASU.

In June, the pandemic was in full swing and people were still trying to take vacations. In response, SRP amended their travel policy to say that employees must notify their internal SRP’s Health Services if returning to work from international travel, from a cruise ship, or from any location within the U.S. with 40,000 or more reported cases of the Coronavirus. The medical staff in Health Services would do an assessment and decide whether the employee could return to work or needed to quarantine for 14 days.

In July, executive management decided that the Crisis Management Team (CMT), who had managed SRP’s response to the pandemic since the beginning, could stand down. A new, smaller group of leaders was put in charge with their primary focus being to work out the details of returning the workforce back to their normal work settings. By this point, SRP’s workforce had been told they would not be returning to the office until January 4th, at the earliest. The new “Return to Work (RTW) Committee” began reimagining what a new work environment would look like, to include socially distanced workspaces, vaccinations, some permanent teleworking, alternate work schedules, etc. With the pandemic continuing, the January 4th return to work date was later moved again until at least June 2021.

After Thanksgiving 2020, the country saw a spike in COVID cases due to family gatherings and travel. Heading into the Christmas and New Year holidays the same was expected to happen again, and the healthcare system and hospital bed space in the Phoenix area were already being overtaxed. SRP decided to do everything possible to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. The company announced a “January Cool-Down” in mid-December. The idea was to avoid employee-to-employee contact as much as possible during the time period when exposures would be at their highest from the holiday season. Personnel were instructed to make every effort from January 4th through January 25th to mitigate risk and slow the spread of COVID-19. Among the actions taken were:

  • Any non-essential work that could create an exposure situation was to be evaluated and/or postponed, if possible
  • Except for critical functions, no employees or contractors were to be in any SRP facilities
  • No in-person training
  • Personnel required to work together to perform critical functions must wear masks 100% of the time, indoors and outdoors, even if they could still socially distance
  • Each crew or work team was to assign a “COVID Safety Observer” to watch and remind others of required protocols

Lessons Learned

Although the pandemic is still in-progress at the time of this writing, SRP learned several lessons during their initial response to the virus. Among the things that went well:

Prompt Initial Response Many felt that the promptness of the initial actions taken by the company (i.e., travel policy, limiting gatherings, teleworking) made a huge difference in keeping our employees safe.

Employee Communications Employees were very complimentary about how the company got information out about the pandemic. Corporate email updates, reoccurring videos from the SRP’s CEO, a 24/7 recorded hotline, and a dedicated space on the front page of our internal webpage were all cited as good examples of trying to keep everyone informed of the rapidly changing environment.

Leveraged Information The members of SRP’s Executive Management and the CMT are all leaders and participants in various industry organizations and associations. The information obtained from these groups was quickly absorbed by the CMT to make sure they were staying up on best practices and did not have to “reinvent the wheel.” One CMT member said that sometimes he was not sure who might be able to use certain types of information, yet he knew that if he shared the information with the CMT that the right people would have it.

There were also things that could be improved in the future. They included:

Pandemic & Infectious Disease Plan The CMT’s Pandemic & Infectious Disease Plan helped to provide direction on issues that should be addressed or considered during the initial response. At the same time, even though the plan clearly stated that the contents were to be considered as guidelines, it also created some confusion for many within the organization. The use of “phases” during the response created some assumed expectations. The plan has since been updated and phases were replaced by actions to be considered based on events occurring in the community or within the company.

Reporting Lines for Subcommittees or Teams In addition to the CMT overseeing the pandemic response, at different points there were a couple of small subcommittees and even the Return to Work (RTW) Committee that were all dealing with similar issues. Different reporting lines caused some confusion as to who had decision making authority and some not knowing what another team was working on. This also caused many wasted hours with redundant efforts going on. It was recommended that in the future, any sub or additional committees work under the authority of the primary team working the event, in this case the Crisis Management Team (CMT). That would ensure that everyone would know what is being worked on and that a single committee or team had decision-making authority.

Supply Chain Issues Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SRP maintained a stockpile of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such has N-95 masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning products. At the same time, the company enjoyed “just in time” inventory options; being able to order and quickly obtain any needed items. Yet, when everyone is suddenly looking to purchase the same items, “just in time” inventories do not work. The pandemic caused SRP to re-evaluate what items were critical to operations and estimate the amount of those items that should be kept in-stock.

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