As Virginia passes through Phase 1 of the COVID-19 process, the commonwealth’s 13 electric cooperatives continue to take unprecedented steps to maintain the safety of their employees and their consumer-members.
Most lobbies are closed to the public, and many co-op employees are working remotely from home. Several co-ops have either rescheduled their annual membership meetings for later in 2020 or are planning scaled-down meetings through the internet.
“Safety is always front and center in the electric cooperative community, and our member systems have done an outstanding job of putting this on display to facilitate the eventual transition to safe, hygienic and somewhat ‘normal’ operations,” said Richard G. Johnstone Jr., president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.
Southside Electric Cooperative (SEC), whose service area includes Bedford County at Smith Mountain Lake, has enhanced its focus on community.
“In adherence to SEC’s mission to enhance the quality of life of the communities served, the cooperative has focused on community contributions in order that area citizens receive much-needed support,” said Lloyd Lenhart, SEC director of community relations.
SEC has contributed to area schools to help fund meal programs and the purchasing of books, donated to various food banks and distributed more than 1,000 vials of hand sanitizer to area sheriff’s departments.
“In this time of crisis, co-op employees have shown their concern for community by making masks, arranging for graduation ceremonies and in many other ways,” Johnstone said. “We’re proud of the way co-ops have responded to this crisis, and we know they will lead the way as we enter the various phases of the reopening process.”
Conveniences implemented by several co-ops, such as online account management and payment kiosks, have proven their worth. Work crews in the field have adapted to new social distancing requirements, while virtual meetings have replaced the conference rooms.
“The work that was done by our IT department to get our member services representatives and other office employees who have adequate internet access at home the ability to work remotely will benefit the cooperative well beyond this pandemic,” said Melissa Gay, communications and member services manager for Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC), based in Arrington.
“The ability to work remotely during future widespread outages will increase how responsive we can be to members’ needs and increase our workforce in the event roads are impassable and office personnel cannot report to the actual office building,” she said.
Many of CVEC’s employees may work remotely through August. The co-op is also currently researching ways to host a virtual Member Advisory Council meeting.
Fredericksburg-based Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) revised its disaster recovery plan several years ago to include a pandemic response.
“Each year, we practice a disaster simulation so that ability to activate the plans remains fresh in everyone’s mind and so we can make adjustments as needed,” said Casey Hollins, REC director of communications and public relations.
REC formed a pandemic response team that meets frequently, provides regular updates and collectively anticipates upcoming needs.
“Having that dedicated team of leaders focused on the pandemic really allowed us to achieve some of the success we were able to experience amid the frequently changing conditions,” Hollins said.
Other co-ops, such as Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC), are also making modifications to their crisis communication plans.
“We’ve added a number of COVID-19-related topics,” said Lisa Hooker, vice president of public relations.
NOVEC’s internal theme of “In This Together,” reflects the family atmosphere within electric co-ops.
“It reminds us that we’re still working together as one to maintain reliable electric service for our customers, even as we’re relocated among several offices and teleworking,” Hooker said.
A weekly email is designed to provide useful information and uplift employees during this stressful time. Topics have included tips for grocery shopping safely, cooking, fitness, managing anxiety, housecleaning and online learning. NOVEC’s ramped-up employee communication also utilizes its intranet and digital signage in common areas.
A&N Electric Cooperative’s (ANEC) service area has been one of the most hard-hit in Virginia because of issues at poultry facilities. Accomack County has had the highest per capita COVID-19 case rate in Virginia.
Recognizing the unique challenges for its employees and members, ANEC has implemented its plan to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines on protecting its employees and their family members while being able to respond quickly in case of power outages.
“We are very fortunate that our employees and their families have had little to no issues as it relates to the COVID-19 outbreak here on the shore,” said Butch Williamson, president and CEO. “Our response by all of our A&N employees has been the best yet, and they did not miss a beat as we continued to provide normal essential services. Our outage response center remains open 24/7 for reporting, and crews are on standby, ready to respond if or when the need occurs.”
The Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives provides safety and training, communications and legislative services to 15 electric cooperatives serving the three-state Mid-Atlantic region. For more information, visit www.vmdaec.com or www.co-opliving.com.
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