What it Means to be Essential
In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Communities across the world shut down to slow the spread of the virus. Only essential businesses were allowed to operate, causing many businesses to change the way they served their customers.
During a time of change and uncertainty, some things were unwavering. When you woke up each morning and turned on the shower, brushed your teeth or flushed the toilet, water flowed from your tap, and your toilet flushed as it always had. Water and wastewater operations continued, ensuring customers did not experience an interruption in service.
We are proud of the services we provide and even more so of the employees who work tirelessly to keep the taps flowing and toilets flushing 24/7, 365 days a year. In fact, we are so proud of their commitment to their jobs, we like to refer to them as heroes.
So how did we keep the taps flowing and toilets flushing? Let us explain.
At the onset of the pandemic, management of the Trinity River Authority of Texas quickly began to plan and execute policies and procedures that allowed staff to continue safely working around the clock to provide clean drinking water and wastewater services to more than 60 communities within the Trinity River basin.
INTIAL THOUGHTS AND ACTIONS
“In the beginning of the pandemic, we thoroughly reviewed our pandemic response plan. We updated the plan to contain additional protocols and measures to be more organized in our response efforts,” said Taylor Huynh, executive manager of administrative services. “A response team and an emergency support team were created to assist with decision-making and implementation.”
Management and the response and support teams addressed how to protect employees in the workplace; respond to an infection at work; continue operations to provide essential services and efficiently and effectively communicate the ever-changing details surrounding the virus to both internal and external audiences, including the public, our customers, our employees and our board of directors.
PROTECTING OUR EMPLOYEES
Being an essential worker during the pandemic required staff to put themselves and their families at risk of exposure to perform their essential job duties. TRA took a multifaceted approach to mitigate these risks and provide employees a safe working environment. Personal protective equipment was the Authority’s first line of defense in ensuring employees stayed healthy to continue operations and meet customers’ needs. PPE included face masks and shields, hand sanitizer, sneeze guards for desks and disinfectants. These were among the first items the Authority purchased and provided to secure a safe environment. Additionally, the Authority implemented social distancing guidelines, consistent surface sanitation of high traffic areas, temperature checks upon entrance to each facility, reduced staff and teleworking to curb the spread and protect frontline workers.
Securing the necessary PPE did not come without challenges, however.
“A lot of resources were depleted at the onset of the pandemic,” said Huynh, “making it difficult for management to obtain the necessary PPE to keep employees healthy and safe in the workplace. Most of the vendors who supply PPE were not able to get the PPE themselves. We couldn’t be concerned about what kind of masks we ordered; we were concerned with finding a vendor that could even supply masks.”
Luckily, the Authority had been proactive in obtaining additional approved vendors throughout the years, providing management with more outlets to acquire supplies from. Even with additional vendors, though, supplies were hard to come by, leading management to think outside the box.
“For example, hand sanitizer was difficult to get from our current suppliers. We went directly to the manufacturers, and even they were not able to keep up with demand,” said Huynh. “We had to think of what other suppliers could produce hand sanitizer. Vendors that do not typically produce hand sanitizer started to do so to assist in meeting market demands.”
As the pandemic progressed, staffing became a challenge as well. Leadership was prepared to establish an actionable plan in the event of their staff being affected by the virus.
“We met with all of the leaders and asked them to look at their workforce contingencies to make sure they were prepared for 40% of their staff to possibly be affected at any one time and have a plan in place for backup staff to keep operations running. We had smaller projects affected, leading us to borrow staff from other plants,” said Huynh.
Communication was a critical component of the Authority’s response efforts. To keep employees up to speed with the rapidly evolving situation, management met every morning and provided a report to assess the spread of COVID-19. Management was monitoring the situation daily using information from the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Texas Department of State Health Services. Industry partners, including the Water Environment Association of Texas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and our customer cities remained in close contact to share information. This helped establish proper lines of communication, putting the most accurate and pertinent information in the hands of frontline employees.
“Everyone came together,” said Huynh. “We were able to collaborate with others to share information and the actions we were taking. We drew a lot of ideas from external sources, and that was really helpful.”
ADDRESSING EMPLOYEE CONCERNS
Employee concerns ranged from severity of the virus and the rate of spread to benefit coverage. Getting information to employees as promptly as possible was a priority to help lessen anxiety, calm fears and make it clear that the Authority was there to support them. This was difficult at times, considering the information was fluid and ever-changing. Management also needed to make sure employees had the leave benefits they needed in case they were exposed or diagnosed.
“Employees save their PTO for vacations, so it was imperative they felt that the Authority was supportive of their leave. We provided the benefits to make that possible. We also worked with our health insurance provider to pay for Teladoc services and COVID testing, and now we are ready to pay for vaccines as they become available,” said Huynh.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Although the pandemic continues, much can be gleaned from the past year and applied to future pandemic response plans.
Huynh said, “We have realized the pandemic response plan needs to be considered a long-term plan at times. As we have worked through the current pandemic, which we initially thought might be short, we see the need for including more long-term efforts into the plan.”
Other key takeaways include the importance of obtaining reliable resources and information, establishing and maintaining a robust list of vendors from which to obtain PPE and stockpiling PPE and essential supplies for future use to ensure we have the resources we need immediately.
According to Huynh, communication with employees is vital in any response plan. In addition to communicating to employees the role they play in protecting themselves, it is equally important to arm them with the information they need to protect those around them, including their co-workers and loved ones, both in and out of the workplace.
The pandemic has changed the way many businesses operate today. Although many of the changes have been difficult to adopt and implement, others have enhanced operations. Above all else, the pandemic has shown us how dedicated our employees are to their jobs and the communities we serve every day.
“Our essential workers have continued to provide operations and services that are required and necessary for continued infrastructure viability,” said Huynh. “TRA functions as critical infrastructure to provide water and wastewater services to the public — playing an essential part in meeting the basic needs of citizens.”
Thank you, TRA heroes!