Throughout the country, municipal public works departments have found themselves doing more than just wearing masks and social distancing to keep their operations running during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether the city has two public works employees or 200 the last few months have not exactly been business as usual.
In the town of St. Clair, Minn., the public works department consists of two employees, and the primary concern was to keep those two workers healthy. Without the pair, St. Clair’s streets, parks, water, sanitary sewer and storm sewer would suffer, translating to pain for residents.
Around the country there have been standard practices with a twist, as social distancing, face masks, splitting shifts, changing lunchroom arrangements and altering workspaces were implemented to stem the spread of the virus.
“For one thing, we’ve installed foot pulls on every door here,” said Jefferson City, Mo., Public Works Director Matt Morasch. “I can actually get from the front door of the building all the way into my office without ever touching a door handle, and it didn’t cost a lot to do.”
The public works department of 130 employees sprang into action making adjustments when the Missouri capital city’s schools closed in mid-March. “Our public works department is used to dealing with storms and other emergencies, so we’ve had some practice with staggering shifts and making adjustments.”
Morasch said in addition to installing the foot pulls on the doors, the department changed working arrangements, moving some employees’ workspaces from inside the building to headquartering them in their trucks, which are assigned to an employee to use exclusively.
While those who wear protective gear were well equipped, Morasch said the city enhanced any equipment that needed it.
Since transit is one of the department’s responsibilities, Morasch said the city made changes that kept the buses running. One of the changes was to install liners around the drivers. Passengers enter and exit the buses at the back instead of the front, and fares were waived to avoid the need for drivers to handle money.
“We are trying to keep the drivers as comfortable as possible,” Morasch added.
The city’s wastewater system is also one of the public works department’s responsibilities. With the shortage of toilet paper and the increased use of disinfecting wipes, making sure that no objects clog the system was an issue that required some education.
“We put out press releases not to flush those wipes, and we’ve had no overflows.”
Another concern for the wastewater system has been the disposal of kegs of beer that were left unconsumed when restaurants and bars closed.
“We’ve been teaching them the most responsible way to dispose of the beer,” he added, further explaining the disposal of large quantities of beer can be detrimental to the wastewater system. For that reason, limiting the amount of beer being disposed and the timing of the disposal is important to wastewater systems in Jefferson City as well as other municipalities.
In addition to keeping its employees safe, Morasch said the city has tried not to cause additional stress to families of employees who may be dealing with child care issues or sick family members.
“We’re allowing people to go negative on sick leave so that they don’t have to worry about the need to stay home.” He added flexibility and communication have been key to keeping the department running as smoothly as possible. “We’ve had to modify as we go.”
Jefferson City has mostly been able to continue with public works projects; however, shortages of items, such as sewer pipe because of the temporary closing of businesses in other parts of the country, has slowed some projects.
In Dunwoody, Ga., the state’s stay-at-home order has reduced the amount of sales tax collected, while fewer visitors to the area meant a drop in hotel/motel tax revenue. The decrease in both has affected some capital projects, according to public works Director Michael Smith.
Dunwoody, a northern suburb of Atlanta, with a population just under 50,000, found that, because of the stay-at-home order, the low traffic volume made it possible to change traffic signal timing and remove lane closure time restrictions for construction on roadways. Smith said by observing recommended safety precautions to prevent spread of the virus, paving operations and other projects continued.
Stay-at-home also meant more people walking and biking Dunwoody’s more than 65 miles of sidewalk. Smith said this led to “increased focus on bicycle and pedestrian concerns” for safety.
Parks maintenance climbed to the top of the projects the public works department is doing in Blacksburg, Va., since parks are closed during the stay-at-home period.
“(The closure) has allowed us to do annual maintenance work in closed parks and recreation buildings that normally occurs once a year in August,” noted Kelly Mattingly, Blacksburg’s director of public works.
Although many of the city’s capital projects have been deferred because of budget concerns, he said Blacksburg utility crews have focused primarily on current projects, such as meter and water tap installations.
The city of 42,000 is home to Virginia Tech, which closed its doors in the spring, leaving only 10,000 of the usual 30,000 students in town. Because there was no commencement, Mattingly said the city has been able to work on streets earlier than the usual June work schedule.
Like other public works departments around the country, the Blacksburg department implemented procedures that discouraged employees from congregating at the end of a shift. “We closed all common areas such as lunchrooms, training rooms and other gathering spaces within buildings.”
Vehicles are restricted to one occupant, and employees are sent home with pay in the event of inclement weather and if the workday ends 30 minutes before the end of a shift.
“This all avoids gatherings of employees,” Mattingly added.
Like many cities around the country, Blacksburg’s garage and administration building were closed to the public while office staff worked from home with VPN — or virtual private network — secure access connection capability.
Online meetings, like WebEx and Zoom, have become the norm for many public works departments to be able to gather and keep department communications open.
While many municipalities have been concerned about keeping employees on the job, there is also the concern about too many people in one place at one time. Like other cities, Crystal, Minn., split its staff into two shifts.
“This has been to provide more coverage in the city so that we can be quicker to respond to emergencies, such as water main breaks, sewer backups, etc., that may compromise where people are living,” Crystal’s Director of Public Works and city engineer Mark Ray said.
In addition to helping extend the department’s coverage, Ray said it also ensured more separation of staff members.
Ray added the city has also been very intentional about providing the most appropriate protective equipment to public works employees. “We provided cloth masks to all staff to conserve higher-rated masks such as N-95s for higher-risk situations.”
On California’s central coast, the city of Santa Cruz’s public works department implemented alternate week work schedules for parking services, wastewater collection, and fleet and street maintenance divisions to both reduce employee health risks and prevent interruption to essential public services. The city’s sanitation, landfill and waste reduction staff have maintained their usual schedules with the precaution of limiting the number of people in changing rooms and other spaces, Janice Bisgaard, the city’s community relations specialist, said.
The city of 64,000 implemented a 10,000 Masks Project that helped both Santa Cruz workers and residents reduce the spread of COVID-19. Public works employees have also been tasked with collecting and distributing related supplies, such as disinfectant and PPE, to all city departments.
Bisgaard pointed out that another of the added responsibilities the public works team has had is addressing “the needs of our unsheltered population.” The department has built and maintained shelters and health care sites to aid these city residents.
In places where the public works department is responsible for water and electric utilities, shutoff orders for unpaid bills have been suspended. Longmont, Colo., issued this statement to local residents, “In order to help Longmont’s residents care for themselves and their families, the city will not disconnect a customer’s utility services during this time. After the pandemic has passed, notice will be given before disconnects resume.”
Longmont Public Works also pointed out the need to consider the variety of weather during the pandemic, which began at a time when in some parts of the country winter and spring intersect. “Mobility throughout the community remains a priority. Street sweeping will continue as normally scheduled, and snow and ice control operations are being launched as necessary.”
But work hasn’t been just wastewater, bus routes and Zoom meetings during the pandemic. In Minnesota, Crystal’s public works employees helped organize birthday brigades for children whose birthday parties have been cancelled in the days of staying at home. The Santa Cruz Wastewater Facility collected more than 7,000 rolls of toilet paper to include in weekly Healthy Food Program grocery bags. Bisgaard said the distribution “supported the Santa Cruz County stay-in-place order while reducing the use of toilet paper alternatives that caused sewer blockages and spills.”