From The Editor | September 5, 2020

Adapting To The 'New Normal' In A Post-COVID Water Sector

Pete Antoniewicz

By Pete Antoniewicz


Beyond all the health-related impacts of the coronavirus pandemic — masks, social distancing, work from home scheduling, etc. — there have been some ripple effects to the daily operations and related employment conditions for water-treatment personnel. This synopsis of experiences provides perspective and outlines some opportunities and approaches for water-industry professionals to adopt if they have not already done so as part of the post-COVID ‘new normal’.

Major Utility Challenges

According to a series of surveys conducted by AWWA, the concerns of respondents evolved over the first few months of the crisis. Changes in water consumption patterns, especially decreases in the commercial sector, started to affect utility revenue flow. After three months, ongoing concerns fell into three main areas of water-utility operations:

  • Revenue/Financial Status. Only 14 percent of survey respondents reported adverse effects on revenue, budgets, or spending by March 16. By mid-June, however, 22 percent of respondents were experiencing revenue shortfalls, 45 percent were making spending adjustments, and another 31 percent anticipated spending adjustments in their near future. Despite the financial challenges, a majority of responding utilities were still offering customer assistance, with 85 percent suspending shutoffs and 62 percent eliminating late payment fees, both down slightly from earlier in the year.
  • Personnel. Absenteeism was a major anticipated concern early in the crisis, expressed by 75 percent of respondents to the March 16 survey. By mid-June that concern had shrunk to an immediate concern for only 5 percent of respondents with only an additional 2 percent thinking it could become an issue in the future. In that same timeframe, however, 55 percent of respondents were reporting workforce hiring freezes, 16 percent reported pay cuts or wage freezes, and 8 percent reported laying off or furloughing employees.

The bottom line is that water operators and water utilities will need to stay as resilient as they typically are through storms, droughts, aging-infrastructure challenges, and more. This article by AWWA Career Zone columnist and human resources/personnel specialist Stuart Karasik recaps the situation very well.

  • Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). Industry concerns about access to PPE were evident right from the start of the crisis, with 73 percent of respondents having an immediate or anticipated concern over sourcing protective masks, gloves, and other PPE supplies. That continued through June to some degree, with utilities reporting inventory and supply chain issues with multiple items — with N95 masks or elastomeric respirators representing the largest deficiency with 27 percent of respondents reporting that they were out of stock and unable to replenish.

Time-Sensitive Certification Requirements

Even those water-utility workers who avoided the layoffs, furloughs, or hiring freezes affecting the industry were not out of the woods, however. That is because another challenge influenced by the lockdown was the loss of access to in-person training for renewal of operator certifications.

Different states approached that problem in different ways. For example, multiple states have modified their requirements to permit operators to substitute online training instead of in-person training to satisfy operator certification renewal. Others have promised to work with individuals who were not able to complete training requirements before their deadline, on the condition that they would complete their required hours when in-person training sessions resume. Each operator needs to check with his or her state licensing body for details.

Coping With The Financial Impacts Of The Crisis

This white paper prepared for AWWA and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) characterized many of the financial impacts of the coronavirus crisis as a baseline for water-utility planning. The focus of the effort was primarily to inform community-water-system managers about an estimated $13.9-billion financial impact from reduced consumption and revenue, slower customer growth, delinquent payments, operational policy changes, employee expenses, and deferred rate increases. The Pacific Institute, a global water think tank, has also outlined how those changes in demand and their ripple effects can impact municipal water suppliers. With the sheer scope of projected financial impacts, certain influences on operator work requirements and compensation opportunities might be unavoidable for many water-treatment operations.

Finding The Right Local Focus

It is well documented that the coronavirus pandemic has not impacted all geographic regions equally. Utility size can also be a factor in the scope of the challenge. Smaller utilities already coping with normal financial or personnel demands can struggle when new hardships are imposed on them by the threat of COVID-19. Here is a cross-section of industry resources utilities can use to gain perspective on their challenges and their options for dealing with them.

  • This special U.S. EPA webpage offers links to general information drinking water utilities can use to answer consumer questions, as well as specific assistance guidelines and resources for water utilities and tribal water utilities.
  • This guidance document from the California Water Boards offers suggestions to mitigate impacts of the coronavirus crisis on community water systems — from staffing and supervision to financial considerations, consumables, and communications.
  • Utilities can also benefit from tangible assistance available through nearby associates in their state by learning more about the Water and Wastewater Agency Response Networks (WARN).
  • This metropolitan utility’s website provides a lot for water-treatment operations to think about, including a focus on communicating response efforts to residential and commercial water users.
  • Finally, this consultant’s website outlines a variety of additional considerations for utilities facing new challenges due to the impacts of the coronavirus crisis.