AWWA Offers Guidance for Legal Issues, Communications During COVID-19 Crisis

image description

Trey Shanks

Environmental Scientist

As the landscape continues to change quickly for water and wastewater utilities and other public works agencies, it’s essential for them to maintain operations as close to normal as possible to protect public health and services. That’s the expectation of the public as well as regulators.

But during this nationwide emergency, utility owners and operators also are being called on to keep up with many other aspects of their businesses that don’t normally require immediate attention, such as changes in the law that affect operations and their workforce, and the need to help their customers sift through competing sources of information for reliable updates.

As we’re seeing, water and wastewater systems and their staffs continue to show how vital they are to their communities in keeping drinking water safe and sewer systems functioning. Your credibility builds confidence within your community and contributes to successfully navigating the crisis.

Here’s a synopsis of tips from two recent American Waters Works Association webinars that can help utility operators manage some of the other challenges arising during the coronavirus outbreak:

Monitor Legal Issues

Be aware of changing laws: The new Family First Coronavirus Response Act provides some workers more paid sick leave, while public works personnel are exempted from the provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act because they’re considered emergency responders. It’s important to familiarize yourself with changes in the laws and even consider adjusting your leave policies to ensure that sick workers stay home and/or get needed medical attention.

Emphasize team safety: In addition to supplying your staff with adequate personal protective equipment and ensuring physical distancing for those who must be on-site, you can add safeguards including daily medical checks for those entering your facilities, including contractors and vendors, and allowing access only to those considered critical to facility operations.

Understand your contracts: Know what remedies are allowed under your agreements if a contractor can’t fulfill an obligation or a project gets delayed.

Stay compliant with state and federal regulations: If you can’t comply with routine requirements because of current challenges — staffing issues, labs that are closed, supply delays, unavailable training or other coronavirus-related reasons — make every effort to find alternative ways to comply, document specifics of the problem and actions you took, and keep your regulators informed about your situation.

Communicate Effectively – Be a Trusted Information Source

Empathize with your customers: Let your stakeholders, customers and ratepayers know you understand what they’re facing and be clear about how you’re continuing to help them through the crisis.

Reassure your workers: Have your leaders show their appreciation and convey the plans and practices for keeping your staff members safe, helping them handle shifting family obligations and providing the tools they need to keep doing their jobs.

Keep official actions transparent: Even without in-public meetings, public agencies still must follow open meetings laws when elected or appointed officials are making decisions and taking formal actions.

Be visible in your community: Use all your online and social media tools to provide current information about the safety of the water supply, the continuity of essential public services and accommodations for bill-paying — and to show water professionals as your customers’ friends and neighbors.

Other Resources:

image description

Trey Shanks, CFM, IAM, leads Freese and Nichols’ Asset Management services. He is a Principal in our Fort Worth office.