AJ Atkinson arrives to work at Carroll Electric Cooperative in Carrollton the same as he has every day since he was hired as the co-op’s manager of marketing and member services — but it’s different lately.
In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began disrupting normal life, electric cooperatives across the state and around the country have made adaptations big and small to keep electricity flowing, and some of the changes could be permanent.
“I think everyone understands that it’s important to do what we can to help contain the virus,” Atkinson says. “People may have thought this was more of a city problem early on, but rural areas are now seeing the effects of the disease, and people are doing their part.”
At Carroll Electric, that meant a new office schedule that included a rotation of staff members working remotely so that those in the office would be able to maintain plenty of distance. While the full staff has now returned to a normal five-day on-site week, all are expected to wear masks when on the grounds, and office hours have been reduced to try to further limit close contact through the day.
At Midwest Electric in St. Marys, the entire staff went to a remote schedule at the onset of the pandemic, and General Manager Matt Berry says that the change went off without a hiccup. The staff has since returned to a schedule of three days in the office and two days remote, which has reduced the number of staff physically present by enough that masks are only required in common areas.
Adams Rural Electric employees are required to wear masks in their West Union office unless they are in their personal office with the door closed. Social distancing is required, and occupancy limits have been assigned to every room in the building. “We’re also having employees report no more than 10 minutes before their start time, and they go directly to their office or their vehicle, so we can limit the amount of close contact,” says Erika Ackley, manager of finance and administration.
Guernsey-Muskingum Electric Cooperative also had employees work remotely at the beginning of the pandemic. General Manager Brian Hill says the co-op had high plexiglass barriers installed around cubicles and open spaces so employees could return to working in the office. “We had hoped this was going to be a temporary issue, but it looks like a lot of our changes will be more permanent in nature,” Hill says.
Pandemic response has also meant broad changes in the ways line crews, service techs, and even vegetation management personnel do their jobs.
Several co-ops now have their linemen report for staggered start times to their shifts to limit the number of people in common areas at the same time. Formerly, crews rode out to jobs in the same vehicle; now, in many cases, each lineman travels to work sites in a separate vehicle.
“Our linemen are having their morning meeting remotely via Zoom,” Berry says. “They get their job assignments electronically, then drive directly to the job site individually in their own co-op vehicle, and they’ll come to the office only if they need supplies.”
Changes have not been limited to the distribution cooperatives around the state. The co-ops get the majority of the electricity for their members from the Cardinal Plant in Brilliant, Ohio. Knowing that an outbreak there could have devastating effects on the plant’s ability to continue delivering that reliable power, Plant Manager Bethany Schunn implemented new protocols — in addition to already-strict safety measures — early on in the pandemic.
All employees, contractors, and the limited number of visitors to the plant must have their temperature taken at the security gates before they’re allowed on the grounds. Schunn and her staff also restricted access to all of the plant’s control rooms, changed various dayshift employee schedules to rotating shifts to ensure adequate department coverage, and initiated weekly COVID-19 update calls between plant and corporate management.
“We knew we had to stay on top of this thing from the start,” Schunn says. “Of course we’re following all CDC guidelines, but lots of times we go well beyond because we know our members count on us to stay up and running.”