News Feature | April 1, 2020

What Happens When Wastewater Labor Is Infected With Coronavirus?

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


The spread of COVID-19 seems to have impacted every corner of the country, but what happens when it reaches indispensable members of our workforce, such as drinking water or wastewater utility employees?

That question demanded an answer late last month in California.

“Highlighting the threat that coronavirus poses to basic public health systems around California and the nation, a worker at San Jose’s wastewater treatment plant — a facility that treats the sewage from 1.5 million people in San Jose and seven other cities — has tested positive for COVID-19,” The Mercury News reported.

The employee is a contracted custodian for the facility and, following the positive test, 17 other employees entered self-quarantine. This left the essential facility operating with about 70 percent of its usual staffing, but attempting to conduct its operations as normally as possible.

Though the health of employees is a priority, municipal wastewater treatment is such an essential service that operations like San Jose’s plant must find ways to continue, even if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

“[Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services for the city of San Jose, said] that plant operators — employee who have state licenses who run pumps, filters, chlorination equipment and other systems to treat 100 million gallons of wastewater a day before releasing it into San Francisco Bay — are working in shifts so that they aren’t all together at the same place and time,” per The Mercury News.

As unfortunate as the news is, San Jose’s struggle may offer lessons to other wastewater plants where staff members test positive. For instance, the utility is calling in some backup labor and undergoing critical protection methods that other operations around the country may leverage as well.

“San Jose also is in discussion with some retirees to come back to assist, and has brought in at least one licensed worker from a private company and another from San Jose’s municipal water department as a backup,” according to The Mercury News. “The plant also received a new shipment … of gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant… Some engineers and financial analysts are working from home. Capital projects at the plant that are part of a 30-year, $2 billion modernization project have been put on hold.”

In March, Water Online reported that wastewater operations were concerned about the potential for non-flushable wipes to clog systems during the outbreak. At the time, the California State Water Resources Control Board warned that disruptions to wastewater services could create additional public health risks while the world wrestles with the COVID-19 pandemic.

To read more about the employees of wastewater utilities, visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.