News Feature | April 21, 2020

During Crisis, Water Treatment Workers Living At Plants

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


Among the many disruptions to working life wrought by the spread of coronavirus has been the outsized pressure put on the world’s essential services. For those ensuring that Americans continue to enjoy clean water in their homes, that has meant living at their places of work.

Across the country, drinking water utility workers have been sleeping at treatment facilities to minimize their exposure to COVID-19 and maintain services as many other Americans self-isolate in their homes. In North Carolina, as elsewhere, this has meant working longer shifts for a week straight while living in onsite trailers.

“Operational teams are being dispatched for seven-day periods, working 12-hour shifts at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant and the Richardson Nanofiltration Plant,” WECT reported. “At the end of the week, employees are relieved by another team, which operates the plants for the next seven days. Officials say that this rotation will continue ‘as long as the pandemic situation warrants.’”

The new arrangement, which also includes provided meals for the workers, is costing the local utility an estimated $160,000 per month. When their seven-day stint is complete, workers disinfect their trailers and so does the incoming staff. Staff members also take their temperatures and are required to report any potential COVID-19 symptoms.

A similar approach is being taken in Tennessee, where water utility employees have been sleeping on cots throughout their local facility. They’ve been living at the utility for a week at a time in teams of five and the strategy has apparently been effective at keeping the plant running and protecting against the spread of coronavirus.

“Most people probably can’t imagine spending an entire seven days at work, including nights, not even leaving once, but that’s what essential employees with the Clarksville Gas and Water Department are doing: living at the facilities to keep the city running during this pandemic,” according to FOX 17. “So far, this and other safety measures within the department seem to be working … out of their 268 employees, no one has tested positive for COVID-19.”

The measures have even reached one of the largest and most ambitious drinking water operations in the country. The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, a $1 billion facility that produces 50 million gallons of drinking water per day, usually requires a staff of 40 full-time employees. But the global pandemic has seen the operation shift to a 10-person crew that lives at the facility and is rotated every three weeks. The employees work 12-hour shifts and sleep in RVs in the parking lot, with food and other supplies delivered daily.

Though such a schedule is clearly trying, statements from the Carlsbad facility reflected a selflessness and dedication that appears to be consistent in drinking water workers and other essential employees at this critical time.

“Each and every one of us here at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant couldn’t have been prouder to provide safe and clean water to our community,” per a statement from the initial live-in crew, reported by Times of San Diego. “We volunteered without hesitation at this uncertain time for the greater good of the San Diego area.”

To read more about the employees who maintain drinking water and wastewater utility operations, visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.