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City takes precautions for critical employees

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Electricity. Water. Trash pickup. The city of Austin provides all these services and we take it as a given that they will be there when we need them.

Even as most Austinites have been ordered to stay home, the employees who make sure we still have lights, water and trash removal are still working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of them are able to work from home, but of Austin Energy’s approximately 1,700 employees, about one-third must report to job sites, according to the utility’s spokesperson Jennifer Herber.

About half of Austin Water’s 1,150 employees are still working on-site to keep water and wastewater treatment plants operating, Greg Meszaros, the utility’s director, told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday. The other half are working from home, he said.

Meszaros said the water utility has a sequestering plan for a pandemic and has purchased supplies, including cots, in case they need to take that step. He said implementing the plan will depend on the level of the virus among employees as well as in the community, but he would not want to sequester workers too soon.

Austin Resource Recovery employees are still doing their jobs, too, with extra protection aimed at keeping them safe. According to city spokesperson Bailey Grimmett, the department has issued rubber gloves to collections workers, to be worn on top of the regular puncture-safe gloves the workers wear on the job every day. ARR has also ordered masks, but due to a nationwide shortage, masks are going first to hospitals and medical personnel, he said in an email. However, ARR has issued hand sanitizer to each employee and disinfectant spray for drivers to use on their vehicles “before, during and after each route.”

Elton Richards, a vice president for Austin Energy, told the Monitor Tuesday that about 400 employees come in to work on the utility infrastructure, with more employees working at generating plants.

Richards had this message for the community: “Let the people of Austin know that our employees are working for them. We use electricity all the time – we’re not really thinking about it unless it’s not there. My employees are incredibly dedicated. … Please understand that they’re out there doing their jobs.”

Richards told the Monitor he had a specific reason for making the statement. Last week, an unidentified individual was seen touching the door handles and gas cap door of an Austin Energy truck. “So the employees notified us and we did a safety alert on it. We provided the employees with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers so they could clean the truck before they got back in it. Stuff like that is just totally uncalled for when you have individuals who are dedicating their lives to the citizens of Austin.”

Richards added, “If you see (workers) out there, just tell them thank-you from a safe distance and just allow us to do our jobs. We want to keep the lights on for you.”

The utilities are no longer suspending service due to nonpayment of bills. Customer Service employees and AE’s customer care team are working together to figure out a solution for people who have lost their income as a result of Covid-19, Richards said.

Employees of the utilities, as well as other employees who must report to a city job away from home, are screened and may not enter the facilities if they have a temperature above 99.6, as recommended by Austin Public Health.

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