As predicted by epidemiologists and public health experts, cases of the new coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, are multiplying in the United States, and the disease is approaching pandemic level globally.
Electric cooperatives—as local employers, community-focused entities and stewards of critical national infrastructure—have a crucial role to play in responding to this burgeoning crisis.
Jeffrey Connor, NRECA’s chief operating officer, is leading the association’s strategy on managing operations at its offices in Arlington, Virginia, and Lincoln, Nebraska. NRECA also is providing member cooperatives with the information and resources they need to meet their consumer-members’ expectations as the situation evolves.
Q: Jeffrey, what concerns are you hearing from member co-ops about the spread of COVID-19?
Connor: Generally speaking, our members are monitoring this situation very carefully and responding to local conditions in their communities. First and foremost, our members are mindful that they operate critical infrastructure. They understand the responsibility to keep the power on for their consumer-members and the businesses and facilities in their service areas. They’re thinking about the health and safety of their employees as well as the public. Some have made the decision to restrict travel for employees and directors. Others are considering postponing or canceling events, like annual meetings, or closing their building’s lobby to the public, and all are being appropriately cautious.
Q: What guidance has NRECA been giving members regarding things like office policy, business continuity and operational challenges?
Connor: NRECA has produced a really informative document for our members this week that answers a lot of those questions. We identified steps they can take to ensure the continuity of their operations and to help them communicate with employees, directors, local authorities, the media and the public. It includes suggestions on reviewing emergency preparedness, focusing on healthy habits, covering communications to employees, suppliers and consumer-members, and being vigilant for early signs of a local public health emergency or any related risks. One thing I’d highlight in the “related risks” category is the fact that cybercriminal activity tends to increase when a region of the country is dealing with an emergency like this, because bad actors know people and resources are strained in those affected areas.
Q: What is NRECA itself is doing in response?
Connor: First and foremost, we are focused on protecting the health and safety of our colleagues at NRECA. That will continue to be the strongest guiding principle as we make decisions that affect our operations.
We’re participating in discussions with other trade associations and industry stakeholders as well as federal government partners. The Electricity Subsector Coordinating Council, which acts as a liaison between the federal government and the electric industry, has a good cadence of conference calls to talk about the coronavirus. And officials from the Centers for Disease Control, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services have provided briefings.
Q: Have you asked employees to consider working from home or any other work arrangements?
Connor: Of course, we’re asking NRECA employees to make good decisions with the health and safety of our entire workforce in mind. We’ve also asked employees to notify and to work with HR if either they or members of their household are planning any travel to affected areas.
In addition to reviewing our business continuity plans, we’ve asked managers to really concentrate on identifying any gaps in being able to perform necessary work in a remote environment. Several senior leaders are working through critical supply issues, reaching out to partners and suppliers, thinking through our major projects and critical business functions, acquiring extra technology and licenses, and generally being available to think through different potential scenarios.
Finally, we’re anticipating decision points when we may have to shift NRECA operations. We all want to keep meeting the needs of our members and colleagues with the least amount of disruption while also keeping our employees healthy and safe.
Managers and department leaders have the flexibility now to raise any exceptions to policy they believe are reasonable. One policy we’ve adjusted is to avoid making travel plans too far in advance. Guidance from the CDC, the federal government, or a state or local authority, as well as the decisions of other organizations to suspend meetings or conferences, could all affect our travel commitments.
Q: Is there any discussion of closing NRECA offices?
Connor: We’re not considering closing any workplaces at this time, but we are preparing for that possiblity. It’s also worth remembering that we have some key business processes and responsibilities that require some employees to physically be in the office. We’re responsible for the management of our Arlington office buildings for tenants as well as NRECA employees. We do business in some regulated industries, like financial services, that require folks to be available in the office.
That said, we’ll take any changes in the coronavirus situation very seriously when making decisions to change the work status for NRECA employees.
Q: What is NRECA doing about its conferences in the near term?
Connor: We’ve set up a weekly meeting to share information and make decisions on NRECA events and conferences looking forward six weeks at a time. There are so many events in play for different departments and lines of business, the first item we need to accomplish is to make sure we have a full and accurate list of those events for which we’re responsible.
Again, we want to apply a reasonable, commonsense standard for any changes to our schedule of events, and we want to have the best possible information on which to base those decisions. But as of now, all of our scheduled domestic events are still on the calendar, and we’re proceeding as though they will take place.
Q: Has there been any or do you anticipate any impact on the NRECA benefits plans?
Connor: Early on, we were able to identify some systems that needed additional resources to deal with historic volumes, like 401(k) transactions. We’re focused on making sure that we have the ability to take benefits calls and process insurance claims and transactions. The new phone system in our Lincoln office is really key to business continuity since it enables member contact center employees and other personnel to access their phone line while working remotely on a laptop. That gives us a big advantage in flexibility for our workforce.
And finally, Mark Santero, who runs Homestead Funds, and his employees are sharing a message of calm in the midst of current market volatility.