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FIVE THINGS ENERGY COMPANIES ARE DOING TO BRING EMPLOYEES SAFELY BACK TO WORK

In March of this year, much of America’s workforce was sent home to shelter in place, as the nation began struggling with how to cope with a pandemic. Over the past several months, energy companies have learned valuable lessons about how employees can effectively work from home, who can do so and who cannot, how to keep those in the field as safe as possible and how to rethink and reconfigure the work environment, all while keeping the power flowing and the lights on for customers across the nation.

Now that states have re-opened their economies, employers are beginning to phase in a return to onsite reporting. But as the number of infected rise and fall, and schools open and close, re-entry plans face many challenges.

Here are five things energy companies are doing to meet these challenges.

1. Remaining flexible

“It’s hard to write a one-size-fits-all policy,” said David LaBelle, Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety for Avangrid, an electric and natural gas company serving customers in New York and New England, and a Renewables portfolio with a presence in 22 states across the country. Avangrid employs about 6,800 people in all of its service areas combined.

“We have so many states and locations, we have not adopted an infection rate criteria that dictates when to bring people back,” he said. “Instead, we poll our business leaders to understand the need to return people. Our first priority is to ensure we do it safely. We continue to evaluate the need on a regular basis.”

“As of now, those who can continue to do their jobs effectively outside the office could work remotely for the remainder of the year,” LaBelle said. “Many of these office-based employees will report in on an occasional basis to handle paperwork that must be signed in person or other tasks that cannot be handled remotely. We’ve been bringing people in, on and off, since July, based on need.”

“We have a significant population of essential workers that has been reporting throughout the pandemic,” he said. “An important consideration has also been ensuring they are protected as we return additional workforce.”

To accommodate those who must stay home to care for school-aged children, Avangrid allows employees flexibility in how they structure their day. They also provide 112 hours of pandemic leave at full pay, for those times when people just can’t juggle everything and need time to deal with family. “This can be a huge challenge for single parents,” LaBelle said.

“We are letting the science guide how we re-enter,” said Angie Karesh, Chief of Staff for Corporate Operations at Exelon, which serves customers in 14 states. Its major utility footprint is in northern Illinois, Philadelphia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, part of New Jersey and Delaware.

Roughly two-thirds of Exelon’s workers are considered essential and have remained on the job, while the rest have been working remotely since mid-March. The energy company had initially anticipated bringing workers back around Labor Day, but, with the uptick in positive cases in its coverage area over the summer, they decided to “revisit the timing of launching phase one in November, with phase one now starting, at the earliest, in January,” Karesh said.

When employees do come back to a work location, they’ll do so in three phases, she said. The first phase will return up to 25 percent of remote workers to the office, with an eight-week assessment period before entering phase two, when 50 percent of the workforce returns. Phase three (full workforce) won’t occur until “the virus no longer poses a threat to the general population through achieving herd immunity, a vaccine or medical advances that mitigate symptoms and all repercussions of the virus.”

In the meantime, Karesh said, “we have people who are going through what is changing state- by-state. It’s not only the science we have to keep up with, but what is happening in each jurisdiction. Our bar is set at the toughest guideline. If the CDC advice conflicts with what a jurisdiction is calling for, we go with the tougher one.”

The company tries to accommodate workers who can’t report onsite even if their jobs are considered essential, for example if they are medically at-risk or have an at-risk person in their household, Karesh said. “Every case needs to be looked at individually. Our employees’ safety is paramount, and we will work with them and their specific situations.  At the same time, we have strict protocols and policies in place to ensure our onsite employees’ health and safety.”

Bill Messner, Director of Security and Resiliency for Portland General Electric (PGE), said his company allows employees to work flexible hours – as long as they make their deadlines. “The normal workday is not necessarily 9-5,” he said. “It’s about the work getting done, not that it has to get done during certain hours.”

Everybody needs to be flexible to make things work, said Bobby Russell, a Human Resource Officer at the Fayetteville Public Works Commission (FPWC) in North Carolina. His company is asking employees to work with them to find solutions.

“We’ve asked our management staff to be flexible as much as they can,” he said. “But we’ve also asked employees who are parents to see if the school system can accommodate them, like by providing video instructions for students after 5 pm or a self-paced curriculum. They need to ask a lot of questions to the school system to see if there are ways the child can learn other than having mom or dad teach them during work hours.”

“It’s hard to write a one-size-fits-all policy,” said David LaBelle, Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety for Avangrid, an electric and natural gas company serving customers in New York and New England, and a Renewables portfolio with a presence in 22 states across the country. Avangrid employs about 6,800 people in all of its service areas combined.

“We have so many states and locations, we have not adopted an infection rate criteria that dictates when to bring people back,” he said. “Instead, we poll our business leaders to understand the need to return people. Our first priority is to ensure we do it safely. We continue to evaluate the need on a regular basis.”

“As of now, those who can continue to do their jobs effectively outside the office could work remotely for the remainder of the year,” LaBelle said. “Many of these office-based employees will report in on an occasional basis to handle paperwork that must be signed in person or other tasks that cannot be handled remotely. We’ve been bringing people in, on and off, since July, based on need.”

“We have a significant population of essential workers that has been reporting throughout the pandemic,” he said. “An important consideration has also been ensuring they are protected as we return additional workforce.”

To accommodate those who must stay home to care for school-aged children, Avangrid allows employees flexibility in how they structure their day. They also provide 112 hours of pandemic leave at full pay, for those times when people just can’t juggle everything and need time to deal with family. “This can be a huge challenge for single parents,” LaBelle said.

“We are letting the science guide how we re-enter,” said Angie Karesh, Chief of Staff for Corporate Operations at Exelon, which serves customers in 14 states. Its major utility footprint is in northern Illinois, Philadelphia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, part of New Jersey and Delaware.

Roughly two-thirds of Exelon’s workers are considered essential and have remained on the job, while the rest have been working remotely since mid-March. The energy company had initially anticipated bringing workers back around Labor Day, but, with the uptick in positive cases in its coverage area over the summer, they decided to “revisit the timing of launching phase one in November, with phase one now starting, at the earliest, in January,” Karesh said.

When employees do come back to a work location, they’ll do so in three phases, she said. The first phase will return up to 25 percent of remote workers to the office, with an eight-week assessment period before entering phase two, when 50 percent of the workforce returns. Phase three (full workforce) won’t occur until “the virus no longer poses a threat to the general population through achieving herd immunity, a vaccine or medical advances that mitigate symptoms and all repercussions of the virus.”

In the meantime, Karesh said, “we have people who are going through what is changing state- by-state. It’s not only the science we have to keep up with, but what is happening in each jurisdiction. Our bar is set at the toughest guideline. If the CDC advice conflicts with what a jurisdiction is calling for, we go with the tougher one.”

The company tries to accommodate workers who can’t report onsite even if their jobs are considered essential, for example if they are medically at-risk or have an at-risk person in their household, Karesh said. “Every case needs to be looked at individually. Our employees’ safety is paramount, and we will work with them and their specific situations.  At the same time, we have strict protocols and policies in place to ensure our onsite employees’ health and safety.”

Bill Messner, Director of Security and Resiliency for Portland General Electric (PGE), said his company allows employees to work flexible hours – as long as they make their deadlines. “The normal workday is not necessarily 9-5,” he said. “It’s about the work getting done, not that it has to get done during certain hours.”

Everybody needs to be flexible to make things work, said Bobby Russell, a Human Resource Officer at the Fayetteville Public Works Commission (FPWC) in North Carolina. His company is asking employees to work with them to find solutions.

“We’ve asked our management staff to be flexible as much as they can,” he said. “But we’ve also asked employees who are parents to see if the school system can accommodate them, like by providing video instructions for students after 5 pm or a self-paced curriculum. They need to ask a lot of questions to the school system to see if there are ways the child can learn other than having mom or dad teach them during work hours.”

2. Rethinking Who Needs to Be Onsite

“The question is not, ‘When can you go back?’ but ‘Why should you go back? What is not being done that is not efficient for our customers?’” asked PGE’s Messner. Roughly two-thirds of the Oregon company’s 3,000 employees have been working from home since March.

“Some of these changes will be permanent. Society, for so long, looked at teleworking and said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to have your team next to you.’ But that’s not the case and as a country, we have proven that.”

What’s more, Messner said, “I like it this way. Think about the amount of flexibility we can give our employees. It helps with our ability to attract new talent. Maybe it will help us to retain talent. If a spouse has to move, maybe we can keep that employee that we otherwise would have lost, now that they can work remotely. It’s opening new doors for us.”

“Some business leaders said they don’t need to bring anybody back,” agreed Avangrid’s LaBelle. And with guidelines that call for socially distant work spaces, he said, “we can probably only bring back up to 50 percent of our capacity anyway.”

At FPWC, the company is evaluating each department’s needs. Russell said many employees in the customer call center, for example, can continue to do their jobs at home – permanently. Likewise, they don’t need all the employees from the payment center to be onsite, and are transitioning to appointment-only service for customers who wish to pay their bills in person. “We will leave the majority of the customer service reps at home and primarily all of our billing dept at home,” he said.

3. Contact Tracing

“We were doing contact tracing before it was a thing,” LaBelle said. “We asked employees to self-monitor for symptoms and quarantine when necessary. People call in to our HR Hub to speak with a member of the health team to record their symptoms or exposures. We track and monitor every case through releasing them to return to work.”

“Early on, we recognized that it was critical for us to keep an eye on this to prevent workplace spread,” he said. “I’m really proud of the way that we’ve done that. It’s a testament to everyone really looking out for each other.”

“As soon as we hear about a positive case, we work with the individual to see if there has been any close contact with other employees or customers,” said Karesh. “At Exelon, positive cases are very minimal. We quarantine an employee if they did have close contact. We don’t say who it was, but we tell our employees which building the exposure was in. This has really helped us keep our employees safe.”

“It’s really been a lifesaver for us,” said Russell. “Employees have been pretty up front and honest to let us know if their significant other was ill or someone they were with on the weekend found out their spouse was positive. We’ve only had about six employees test positive. But we’ve quarantined 15-20 employees because of family members they interact with or because they had a significant other have a coworker who was positive. It’s worked well.”

Messner said PGE added staff to its medical team specifically to do contact tracing. “When we get a confirmed case, we follow CDC guidelines and do a 48-hour lookback to see who’s been exposed. We can proactively test once we know people in that group. And we have a service provider that can get us test results in 15 minutes.”

As a result, he said, “we haven’t had anybody get sick from somebody else at work.”

4. Strategic Work Hours

At FWPC, “we’ve already begun the transition of workers coming back into the building,” said Russell. “We phased them in by having different start times. Employees arrive in 30-minute increments so they cannot congregate together as a large group. Teams check in, get their equipment and supplies and go out into the field.”

Others begin their workday at home and then head straight to the field to carry out work tasks. “They never come into our facility unless absolutely necessary,” said Russell. These are workers who are reinstalling meters or addressing problems at customers’ homes, as well as those who handle maintenance. Before heading to the field, he added, they must check themselves for symptoms of the virus and report any to the company’s medical staff.

5. Reworking the Office Environment

Avangrid immediately made changes to its facilities to protect workers who could not work from home, said LaBelle, noting that nearly 40 percent of its workers need to report to perform their jobs. “There are just some jobs that can’t be done remotely. We are very cognizant of the fact that we have people who have been working all along through some very uncertain times.”

The utility placed kiosks for thermal imaging and health screeners at its larger locations and asked employees to self-monitor for symptoms at the smaller, less populated ones, he said.

They’ve also recently begun using a wellness app to help screen employees for symptoms, monitor for travel and identify any exposures.

They replaced air filters and increased fresh air usage in their buildings, wherever possible. They placed signage in all locations reminding employees to properly distance and wash their hands. All employees are required to wear masks when they cannot physically distance and restrict elevator usage to one person at a time.

Though Exelon has yet to enter phase one of re-entry, “we have set up our offices as if we are in phase one,” Karesh said. “Before you step foot in our offices, you need to be prescreened on health and exposure to COVID-19. We have an enhanced screening protocol. If we have a COVID case we do a biohazard cleaning as well.”

Exelon eliminated seating in common areas to prevent employees from congregating and reduced the number of people allowed in conference rooms, she said. Exelon also closed its cafeteria and gyms. Masks, wipes and hand sanitizer are readily available to anyone onsite.

“If you walked into our office, you would feel the difference,” Karesh said. “We did it for current state. If people are going to walk in, we want to make sure everyone is safe.”

PGE has been holding meetings outdoors, when possible, and is in the process of looking for ways they can continue to do so in the winter months, perhaps using heated tents, Messner said. “Right now, we’re in a pandemic in the beautiful summertime. What happens when you have your crew meeting and it’s raining or snowing? What do we need to do to support field crews in those colder months? The pandemic is not going to end when it gets cooler. We’re leaning in now, so we’re ready when it comes.”