Keeping the Faith During an Extraordinary Year: LADWP’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Albert Rodriguez
At the close of 2019 and the early months of 2020, LADWP employees began seeing increased media reports about a new and mysterious virus. At first it seemed like nothing more than a faraway story, but all too quickly, it became apparent that a full-scale pandemic was spreading across the globe. Soon, our TV screens were filled with images of upturned lives, devastated local economies and overwhelmed medical and government functions. By March, we watched with bated breath as COVID-19 was poised to engulf Southern California like a menacing, slow-forming tsunami wave taking shape across our collective horizon.
As with any organization, the evolving situation presented a challenge to LADWP. How would the Department carry out its critical function of providing reliable water and power to residents of the City of Los Angeles? What if a large percentage of its workforce suddenly became infected, sick, hospitalized or worse? How would customers who lost jobs and income be able to shelter in place without water and electricity, much less pay for those services? These were some of the most pressing issues facing LADWP leadership at the onset of the pandemic.
Dedication, Teamwork, Ingenuity
The immediate internal response was to launch Critical Continuity of Operation plans to keep the Department running and to protect employees and their work environment in order to limit the spread of the disease. A telecommuting policy was put in place, greatly reducing the amount of people within LADWP buildings and facilities at any given time.
Overnight, the important, everyday work of custodial crews took on a new significance and became all the more meaningful. Their increased efforts to wipe down and sanitize equipment and high-traffic areas and surfaces at LADWP facilities made them the first line of defense in the battle against COVID. It was certainly not lost on employees who warmly greeted custodial staff with heartfelt appreciation for staying on the job to help protect others.
Employees were asked to don face masks and wash their hands often, but with a national shortage of facemasks and hand sanitizer, it was imperative that the Department look inward for innovative solutions. The LADWP Upholstery Shop on Main Street was repurposed to start producing face masks, especially those made of fire-resistant material required by the 3,000 employees who work in high-voltage environments. Fire-resistant fabric was cut out of safety shirts, pants and handkerchiefs that were in stock. At its peak, the upholstery shop was distributing nearly 200 fire-resistant masks a day under the expertise of master upholsterer Francisco Villalobos-Casillas.
When Supply Chain Services (SCS) was unable to purchase hand sanitizer for employees due to its scarcity in the marketplace, they looked to the industrial chemists within the Power Construction & Maintenance Test Lab. These employees were able to produce hundreds of gallons of the vital disinfectant and, through cooperation with SCS, got it bottled and distributed to LADWP facilities. Likewise, many other shops came together to ensure a safe working environment for all employees, from installation of plexiglass barriers at workstations, fabrication of thermometer self-check stations and disinfectant dispensers to eye-catching social distancing signage and messaging; all of which attest to the skills and versatility of LADWP employees stepping up to do their part and take care of their fellow co-workers.
Focus on Leadership and Optimism
As employees settled into the new reality of living and working under pandemic conditions, they looked to LADWP leadership for guidance and encouragement. General Manager and Chief Engineer Martin L. Adams’ optimism and confidence helped buoy the spirits of the Department during this historic crisis. Adams’ constant and reassuring presence through video updates and the first-ever, virtual Employee Town Hall helped galvanized employees and gave them the clear direction needed to work through the uncertainty of the time. His message was to take care of each other and take time to de-stress in order to focus on the Department’s core mission. LADWP’s critical role in providing a reliable water and power supply to a city of 4 million people, desperate for normalcy, was something that simply could not stop.
“We know that many of us will not be returning to the office anytime soon and that we are all doing a balancing act with family and work while at the same time, the city is relying on us,” said Adams in one of his earlier messages.
Marty Adams: “As essential workers, we have to continue providing critical services. We know that what we are doing to safeguard each other is working. We will continue working the plan and continue doing our jobs. Through the ingenuity and creativity of our employees looking out for one another, we will all get through this together.”
The Department also launched an employee appreciation campaign with posters, videos and stories, all highlighting the way LADWP is persevering and getting the job done. The campaign highlighted LADWP’s own essential workers embodying LADWP’s core values, and committed to the mission of delivering critical services to our customers.
Helping Our Customers
LADWP’s external response to the pandemic was to assure customers that their water supply was safe, thanks to a thorough, state-of-the-art treatment, testing, monitoring and well-maintained distribution system. The message was reiterated that COVID-19 is spread through person-to-person contact and not through water, and that LADWP’s water supply has redundancies in place in the event of any disruption. Thanks to LADWP’s safety protocols, our customers could rest easy knowing they could count on reliable, high-quality drinking water during the pandemic.
To protect customers and employees, all in-person services and residential and commercial customer programs were suspended on March 19. This included program outreach, enrollments, installations, inspections and workshops. Customer Service Centers were closed on March 20 and customers were encouraged to pay their bills online, by phone, by mail or take their payments to a LADWP drop box. With many customers experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic’s effect on the local economy, customers were also offered flexible payment plans.
In a gesture of compassion and empathy, the first-ever bill relief plan was enacted as LADWP announced it would not shut off services for non-payment. Customers who received a disconnection notice in the mail were told to disregard it, while late fees were also discontinued. In October, LADWP and the LA City Council passed the federally funded CARES Utility Assistance Program. This provided one-time, $500 grants to income-qualified customers to help pay utility bills, allowing the most financially impacted customers to maintain their indispensable water and electric service. Approximately 560 LADWP employees helped process 77,337 applications. The Department had lived up to the concept of being a neighborhood utility, one in which it viewed its customers as partners, vital to the efforts of keeping the city functioning while awaiting a better, brighter tomorrow.
Commitment, Reliability, and Hard Work
Out in the field, the pandemic situation was just as dire and urgent. Meter Reading, Power, and Water Distribution crews were all placed on rotational shifts of up to 50 percent and start times were staggered in order to minimize the number of employees congregating in the yards. To further protect employees, working pods were established to limit contact with other crews, hand sanitizer dispensers were made available and extra vehicles were provided to accommodate single-rider occupancy. Vehicles, tools and equipment were meticulously sanitized before and after use. All employees were routinely reminded to maintain proper hygiene and social distance to protect their co-workers, family and customers.
Some of the most publicly visible employees were meter readers who had to step up their customer services skills. Tasked with entering properties to access meters, these employees had to contend with customer reticence and apprehension. They did it successfully with a great deal of diplomacy.
“Our meter readers rose to the challenge by coming to work and successfully reading the vast majority of our meters within the three-day window for each billing cycle,” said Luis Y. Terrazas, Assistant Director of Field Operations. “In doing so, we minimized the amount of estimated reads for the bulk of our customers. Employees also worked safely during this crisis and our reported injuries for 2020 are the lowest since 2009.”
With the arrival of summer, field crews were hit with the added complications of social upheaval in the streets, extreme heat storms and falling ash from wildfires. All of these developments added to increased safety concerns for our field crews. At the height of the protests and disturbances, crews working in affected areas were instructed to return to their districts. Meter readers stopped their work, resulting in estimated billing for some residential customers in affected neighborhoods. Crews that had to respond to major emergencies required escort by LADWP security and/or LAPD officers.
Then came the extreme heat events and fires, which made it tougher for crews walking the sidewalks, climbing poles or cutting and installing pipe down in trenches. Having to wear masks while performing strenuous physical activity created exasperatingly difficult breathing conditions. There was seemingly no reprieve as unhealthful, ashen-laden air from some of the largest wildfires in state history blanketed the L.A. Basin. This made employees more susceptible to dehydration and heat exhaustion. Still, field crews endured and carried on while taking important safety precautions. They increased their water intake, set up shade and scheduled the most arduous tasks for the early morning or evening. With perseverance, planning and stamina, they continued providing critical services in spite of what fate had thrown at them.
“All our crews should be commended for performing as they have while adjusting to the changes and safety precautions required of them,” said Walter Rodriguez, Assistant Director of Power Transmission and Distribution. “They dealt with adversity through two unprecedented heat storms while restoring power, providing new service and working to strengthen our grid for increased reliability to all our customers. This was all done with minimal incidents or injuries.”
The Value of Water and Power Service
“The commitment, dedication and willingness to respond of all our employees are important factors in maintaining the reliability of our city’s water distribution system and our power grid. These admirable traits coupled with an incredible work ethic are truly critical in our efforts to collectively see our way through this very challenging period.”
— Water Distribution Division Director Breonia Lindsey
Keeping the water and power flowing coupled with enhanced customer service is LADWP’s core mission, but this responsibility has a much deeper meaning. LADWP provides the vital water and electricity that allows for small miracles every day – enabling children to attend school online, running a small business, driving through a city with working traffic signals, drinking a glass of refreshing water, having clean clothes, taking a hot shower, or simply being able to turn on the lights on the darkest of nights. These things are what really keep the social fabric, economic vitality and civility of our city intact. It is what LADWP employees have always known and why they work so hard.
Although we do not know what 2021 will bring us, we know there are constants that will remain certain and unshakeable. LADWP will continue to keep faith in its values. Its employees will continue looking out for one another with love and devotion to their duties, serving the City of Los Angeles through any uncertainty or turbulence born of extraordinary crises.