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Powering Through the Pandemic: Keeping OPPD facilities safe

August 24, 2020 | Laura King-Homan | OPPD employees
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Over the past several months, OPPD employees have worked behind the scenes in a variety of ways to keep customers connected during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the coming months we will showcase some of the employees doing this behind-the-scenes work, and actions they are taking to help friends and neighbors during this difficult time. Together, OPPD’s employees are where the light starts, and the work they do every day helps your utility power through the pandemic.

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Building Services and Operations

“Like most disasters, this pandemic didn’t happen at the most opportune time,” said Jake Farrell, manager of Building Services and Operations for OPPD.

His business unit was already hopping with a number of building modernization projects. And the team had also been conducting work in support of Power with Purpose, OPPD’s plan to add up to 600 megawatts of utility-scale solar with natural gas backup.

Then came the coronavirus. It shifted the day-to-day focus to the cleaning, sanitizing and physical safety of OPPD buildings throughout the utility’s 13-county service territory. It’s crucial work in order to keep employees healthy and reliable power flowing to the utility’s 385,000 customers.

“We prioritized disinfecting common areas for the safety of essential employees who must report to work.”

Farrell, on the other hand, is among about half of OPPD’s employees who have mainly worked from home since mid-March. He oversees a team whose work occurs around-the-clock under normal conditions.

The pandemic compounded that work. And recent civil unrest added another twist.

Other factors

With its proximity to the Omaha police headquarters and the Douglas County courthouse, OPPD’s Energy Plaza headquarters sustained graffiti damage and broken windows during protests in June. Farrell’s team had to make repairs and add protections in the event of additional demonstrations.

“Balancing work needs with family needs, as kids are home and doing e-learning, has been difficult at times,” he said.

It’s a relatable situation for so many right now. Work from home can feel ever-present. Farrell is coping by, “making sure to walk away and leave certain issues for tomorrow.”

He does go into the office at least once a week to check on facilities and those among his team who are essential and must report to the office every day.

Whether working in an OPPD facility or in a home office, Farrell said the Building Services and Operations team is looking ahead to figure out exactly how employees will return to work in the coming months.

“We are asking, ‘What will the employee, customer and visitor experience look like as we return to work?,’” he said.

Social distancing throughout various types of facilities requires a great deal of consideration – from desk configurations to elevator and stairwell traffic to hand sanitizer availability and cleaning protocols, among others.

Working to keep facilities safe, not only for employees, but for all who enter OPPD buildings, is a non-stop job. The janitorial staff deserves a special thanks, he said.

Adapting

Through it all, Farrell said, his team has shown tremendous flexibility.

“It’s very rewarding to have a team that is so dedicated to their roles at OPPD. They work hard and provide constructive feedback.”

Farrell is proud of the positive work and business environment his group has created. “We set the mood for all those who enter and leave our buildings.”

He’s also proud of the work of OPPD’s Business Continuity Plan team, of which he is a part.

“We are dealing with a situation that has not been worked through before.  The discussions we have are informative, collaborative and, at times, heated. The BCP team worked through all scenarios and recommended plans and procedures.”

Being part of the post-COVID-19 utility is a “humbling” experience, he said.

“I am thankful for our thoughtful approach to keeping our employees and the community safe.”

Customer Care team

They may not wear hard hats or climb utility poles, but they are just as much on the front lines. OPPD’s Customer Care team has had to make some serious adjustments since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

First, there are the physical work location changes.

“To help with social distancing, a majority of my co-workers and I have moved to different work locations,” said call center representative Lisa Donham.

MISC_COVID_Employee Spotlight_CustCare_Donham
Lisa Donham in OPPD’s Customer Care Center.

“Our role here at OPPD is to serve the customer to our best ability, whether that be helping them with payment arrangements, starting or stopping service for them or just to be here to answer questions they might have,” said call center representative Alyssa Bryant.

“We also take calls pertaining to outages. It could be that their whole house is without power, they had some flickering, or simply having a broken tree limb on a power line we need to remove.”

But these days, OPPD has fielded other types of calls for tough situations, requiring innovative solutions.

“Our supervisors had to create new procedures to better assist our customers who were losing their jobs or just couldn’t keep up on their payments. A lot of changes were happening quickly, but I’m glad we could figure out ways to help our customers.” (need attribution)

The utility has taken steps to help customers impacted by coronavirus, including suspending disconnections and late payment charges until recently, among other solutions.

“We have also tried to make arrangements for anyone with a high bill, by trying to roll their owed amount into a budget plan that is fit for them,” said Bryant.

Pride in their work

Bryant said she’s glad to be able to provide customers with “a sense of relief” as they are facing these challenges.

“I am so proud to work with a great group of people. We truly have a great team. It is inspiring to see the care and professionalism our call center representatives bring day in and day out,” said Shenisa Neal, a supervisor inCustomer Care Services.

Nitty Gambhir – wearing mask
Gambhir

“They not only have to take care of their own well-being, and that of their family and other loved ones, but they also have a great responsibility of taking care of our customer-owners and co-workers,” said Nitty Gambhir, a supervisorin Customer Care Services. “This has been a time when our reps have really shined.”

Supervisors have stepped up, as well.

“I would say the most challenging situation right now is having our department separated into different locations and settling in to our new normal,” said Gambhir.

New normal

At the beginning of the pandemic, Gambhir worked primarily from home. These days, he is in the office more and more, but the office looks different.

“Our front-line team has been spread out at times over four or five different locations. That is now down to two primary locations as we have entered into busy storm season.,” he said. “Our facilities team has been able to redesign our work spaces to be socially distant.”

All OPPD buildings and work spaces now undergo extensive cleaning and disinfecting procedures, hand sanitizer is readily available, and face masks are required in common areas.

Neal works in a rotation between home and the office.

“You have to be creative in your approach and connect with (customers)in different ways,” said Neal.

“One of the things that we rolled out for the first time in Customer Care was WebEx (audio/video conference) interviews. We hired three part-time employees during this pandemic and also introduced virtual training… and it has been successful.”

The utility continues to plan for what the future of the workplace will look like. And a cross-functional team continues to help come up with ways OPPD can continue to support its customers during uncertain times. But one thing remains constant: Taking care of the customer is top priority.

“It’s so rewarding to being able to provide assistance to our customers who are in need during this difficult time,” Donham said, “so they have one less thing to worry about.”

Scott White – Supply Chain

Ever since coronavirus (COVID-19) changed the way everyone lives and works, adaptions were needed. OPPD is no different. Whether it be roughly half of the workforce working from home, or frontline employees at OPPD facilities making sure the power keeps flowing to customers.

For Scott White and his peers in OPPD’s Supply Chain department, one thing remains constant: OPPD still has to make sure workers have the things they need to do their jobs. For White, who works as a Stores crew leader at North Omaha Station (NOS), some changes were made to keep employees safe.

“We can’t grab packages and open them up like we used to,” he said. “We now spray them down and let them sit for 24 hours. If it is a ‘hot item,’ something that is needed right away, we glove up and disinfect it.”

White said early on he saw the need to do things differently since he and his peers can’t work from home. They needed to be extra cautious that they weren’t bringing the virus home and putting themselves and their families at risk. White saw to it that employees set up a quarantine area at NOS where delivery drivers could drop their items off without having contact with others.

“This was new to everybody, including us here at OPPD, and it became protocol,” he said.

White said he wants others to know that although things are quieter around the plant these days, everyone there is practicing social distancing and taking the needed measures to stay safe.

“We’ve adapted pretty well,” White said.

Others have noticed the positive effects of White’s work.

“Scott has been a champion of common sense actions with regards to the COVID situation that were implemented early in the event,” said Jane Metzer, supervisor of Supply Chain Materials Warehousing.  “He has struck a great balance: Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of social distancing so that we keep things as safe as possible while still getting the job done.”

Metzer said White is also active in the community helping coach youth softball. His two daughters both play softball and he said it is one of his great joys in life.

“I’m just looking forward to the day things go back to normal,” White said. “For me, that means getting back to softball.”

Laura Langford, Corporate Accounting

Over the past 21 years, Laura Langford has served OPPD in a variety of roles, helping to keep utility finances on-track for its customers.

None of those years compare with 2020.

“We learned to do things differently,” she said during a video conference interview from her Papillion home, “and we’re still firing on all cylinders.”

Employee Spotlight_Laura Langford PhotoAs Controller and Director of Corporate Accounting for OPPD, Langford leads a team of “great accountants,” who ensure all financial transactions are recorded.

“We are very much behind the scenes. Customers are not necessarily going to see us. We’re not the face of OPPD,” she said. “There are a lot of less-visible areas of the company. And all are essential to keep everything plugging along, so we continue to operate a great business.”

OPPD’s Corporate Accounting team of 17 accountants have a big job. OPPD’s budget for 2020 alone is $1.3 billion.

“We handle transactions from large assets,” she said. “ To transactions related to debt and investments, and any new changes that we have, such as new accounting standards.”

Their work is crucial to keep the utility strong.

“It gives not only our management, but also board members and investors, an insight into how we’re doing financially.”

As one of their major functions, her team compiles OPPD’s annual financial report.

“It’s the numbers behind the story we’ve told all year, the power of performing. And it kind of wraps it all up. It provides a nice picture for our customers, board, management, and investors, to show how we did and if we achieved the objectives we were trying to achieve.”

It’s not just a look at how the company performed over the past year, but a way to plan for the future, while keeping rates low for customers.

“All those financial statements really help management make the best decisions that they can,” Langford said. “And we’re keeping the customer in mind with all of those decisions.”

Like more than 50% of the company, all of Langford’s team has shifted to remote work since mid-March amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Working from home keeps OPPD’s work force healthy so they can continue to power their communities.

“It’s been really a good learning to do things differently,” Langford said.

“OPPD is not closed. We’re open for business. We’re still serving our customers. Even though some of us are working outside the office building, we’re still serving our customers.”

Like for so many others right now, working at home bleeds into family life and a forced slowdown at the Langford home.

“On the plus side of the pandemic, I’m spending more time with my kids. They’re home more.”

Her 20-year-old daughter Lindsay came home early from college in Iowa, and her 17-year-old son, Troy, had to wrap up his junior year of high school with remote learning.

“As my kids have gotten older, you realize that the time you spend with them really shifts. You really appreciate when they’re home.”

She’s proud of how they’ve powered through these challenging times.

“Their world really shifted. I mean, all of our worlds really shifted quickly,” Langford said. Langford said the essential nature of the service OPPD provides drives her work.

“Being public power, we really care about our customers. I want our customers to know how much OPPD considers them. They are top-of-mind. Not only maintaining electrical service for them, but understanding them in their time of need.”

Arlo Christensen, Safety

At an electric utility that employs hundreds of people doing dangerous jobs every day, safety is always at the forefront. So when the coronavirus pandemic struck, OPPD’s safety department took the new challenge head-on.

The mission of the department is that “safety matters” at work, at home and on the road for all employees. This spring, safety included more than just the daily dangers of working around electricity.

Safety now included protecting employees against miniscule microbes.

Arlo Christensen, director of Safety and Health at OPPD, said the amount of time he has spent dealing with COVID-19 in recent weeks has lessened, but it is still a huge focus.

“When this first started, it made up 90 percent of my time,” said Christensen. “We were dealing with the health side of this around the clock. Now, Traci Schuette (OPPD’s manager of Safety Analytics & Administration) and I rotate as our health officer for week-long shifts.”

Christensen said they see OPPD having to deal with the virus for months. But they remain determined to offer the right support and guidance for the utility and its employees.

Like many OPPD employees, Christensen can do much of his work from home. When he does have to go work sites, he is vigilant about monitoring his health and adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“I’m kind of a social butterfly, so this has been difficult,” he said. “But it’s especially important we aren’t bringing anything in to the power plants. In fact, we have the same person supporting the same plant rather than the rotation we typically do.”

He said in the last few weeks his job has started to resemble the job he did pre-COVID.

“Our goal is still reducing injuries and keeping everyone safe, regardless of where they work,” Christensen said. “And that’s not just OPPD employees. We want to make sure our contractors are safe and adhering to our safety standards and keep our customers safe.

“It’s not about the cost of injuries, though even small injuries can add up and being a public entity, those costs are reflected on a customer’s bill. But a lot of our customers have family that work at OPPD and a lot of our employees are rate payers too. We want them safe, whether it be from workplace injuries or a virus.”

Where the Light Starts: OPPD crew stops for goodwill

Customer Amanda Purdham recently emailed OPPD CEO Tim Burke to share her gratitude towards a crew. The crew members, working in her neighborhood, noticed her son was celebrating his birthday and made the most of the current conditions. Here was her message:

“You have a crew out here this morning, May 14th… in Papillion. My home sits just across the street from where your crew is currently working. We have giant, albeit slightly obnoxious, signs in the yard for my son’s 10th birthday today and we just went out to see the signs and take some pictures.

Brecken birthday_CROPPED

One of your crew members must have read the name on the signs earlier because when we went outside, the gentleman started calling my son’s name, “Brecken?! Brecken! Hey, Brecken! Are you Brecken? HAPPY BIRTHDAY BRECKEN!”

I know it seems like such a simple thing to say, but honestly he could have just gone about his business and made no mind of us. It was a very kind gesture and my son was surprised and smiling ear to ear. I think this rainy, ‘quarantine’ birthday is off to a pretty great start.

I hope you are able to find out who the gentleman is, by the address above, and make sure he gets some kind of recognition. It’s important to have great employees who also make a difference in the community, no matter how small. We appreciate everything you all do!”

That crew was Nick Wigle, Jarod Buckley and Rod Smith, who helped Brecken celebrate that milestone birthday and lived OPPD’s core value of honoring our community.

Brecken birthday_Jarod and Nick_CROPPED
Jarod Buckley and Nick Wigle work on OPPD equipment in a Papillion neighborhood.

As their manager, Eli Schiessler, put it, “We are lucky to have guys like Rod, Nick and Jarod representing OPPD in our community.”

Enterprise Risk Management

When you’re leading a utility through a pandemic, there are a lot of decisions to make and information to gather.

That’s where OPPD’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) team comes in. The four-person team gathers data and statistics and creates short-term forecasts around coronavirus (COVID-19). They present them daily to the utility’s Business Continuity (BCP) team so they can make data-driven decisions.

They start with information from a variety of sources regarding cases, deaths and growth rates. Then they put the information into several graphs and charts to build a comprehensive presentation for BCP to evaluate during their daily discussions around operations, said Charlie Schoenkin, enterprise risk analyst. He added that ERM is looking beyond the raw data and constantly refining what to include based on what leadership needs.

Having the ERM team analyze and compile this information allows the larger group to discuss issues using the same set of information.

“We’re putting the information into a format that’s easy to understand,” said Dan Laskowsky, director of Enterprise Risk Management. “And it gives BCP the opportunity to be as proactive as possible.”

There are many different sources of information on COVID-19, and models projecting the virus’s next turn. For ERM, filtering through the information comes down to a simple mantra: trust but verify.

They recommend customers do the same thing when they read or watch the news.

“It’s a healthy habit to have multiple sources on a topic you’re reading about,” said Sean Frazier, enterprise risk analyst.

In their day-to-day role, the ERM team works to gather operational and strategic risks, assess them and help prioritize actions. Their goal is to maximize the customer dollar by preventing negative outcomes and optimizing good outcomes.

During this pandemic, their work allows OPPD’s leadership to make sound decisions to keep employees safe. When employees are safe they can continue to provide energy to customers and keep them connected when they need it most.

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About Laura King-Homan

Laura King-Homan is the managing editor of The Wire and a brand journalism strategist at Omaha Public Power District. She has nearly 20 years of print journalism and design experience, including the Omaha World-Herald.

View all posts by Laura King-Homan >

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