PANDEMIC

MidAmerican bucks stay-at-home trend as peers watch and wait

Utilities are taking a cautious approach to returning employees to offices nationwide as states gradually reopen their economies amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Then there's MidAmerican Energy Co., which is bucking the trend. The Berkshire Hathaway Energy-owned utility, based in Des Moines, Iowa, returned almost all of its 3,300 employees to company offices yesterday, spokesman Geoff Greenwood said.

"Since state governments in our service territory are now transitioning to repopulating businesses and generally opening commerce, we are prepared and able to support a safe transition to our facilities so that we can best serve our customers as their needs ramp up," Greenwood said in an emailed statement.

MidAmerican serves parts of four states. But most of its operations are in Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) was one of the few governors not to formally issue a stay-at-home order to combat COVID-19, though she directed schools and most retail stores to close. Iowa is now among the first states to reopen businesses.

"As restrictions are eased and commerce opens up throughout our service territory, we are taking steps to eliminate rotating shifts and safely transition all office employees back on-site to handle increasing customer needs," Greenwood said.

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Utilities everywhere have taken extraordinary steps to keep the lights on across vast territories while keeping workers safe from the virus. They've sequestered workers at power plants, implemented stringent cleaning protocols and equipped on-site workers with protective gear. They've also had much of their office staff working remotely to maintain social distancing and help slow the spread of the virus.

From coast to coast, states have started allowing at least some businesses to open in recent weeks. But most utilities have no plans to return employees to offices en masse. And some envision remote work continuing through at least much of the summer.

Commonwealth Edison Co. spokesman David O'Dowd said the Chicago-based utility doesn't anticipate returning any of its 2,500 remote workers to company offices until after Labor Day.

"We will revisit that timeframe a few weeks prior and its possible that we will extend remote working longer," O'Dowd said in an email.

The same goes for Entergy Corp. and Southern Co.

Tom Fanning, CEO of Atlanta-based Southern, said office workers, those who can most easily telework, will be the last in the company to return under phase three of the company's reopening plan. And that won't likely be until at least late summer.

"Though we can't predict with certainty, it wouldn't surprise me that phase three wouldn't be any sooner than Labor Day," Fanning told E&E News last week.

About half of the workforce at New Orleans-based Entergy has been working remotely since mid-March.

The utility said current COVID-19 "mitigation measures" will remain in effect until at least Labor Day. Procedures for all employees to begin returning to workplaces will be communicated this summer.

Arizona Public Service said employees who don't have a critical need to be at company facilities will work remotely through at least July.

A slow return to work

Some other utilities are starting to send employees back to company offices, albeit slowly.

St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. has about two-thirds of its 9,500 employees working remotely. The utility returned about 470 of them to the office yesterday and will return additional employees in waves over a period of time, Mark Lindgren, senior vice president and chief human resources officer, said in an email.

"Most [employees] working at home today are highly productive so we don't feel a hasty return is the most prudent course of action," Lindgren said. "It will be a gradual process [and] we are taking a cautious and conservative approach.

"To be sure we're being cautious, measured and safe at all times," he added. "We'll review data, consult medical experts and use our experience from each wave before we move to the next one."

NRG Energy Inc., Duke Energy Corp. and CenterPoint Energy Inc. plan to return a small number of employees to offices either this month or next.

NRG, a competitive power company with headquarters in Houston and New Jersey, said it intends to bring a small number of employees back in June who are deemed critical to helping support summer operations. The company is targeting a phased approach beginning in September to return other employees.

About 60% of Duke's 29,000 employees are teleworking. About 200 of them will come back this month, and the utility will adjust its approach based on trends in COVID-19 infection rates.

Duke executives have asked employees with compromised immune systems or who are otherwise at high risk for infection to speak with supervisors before returning to work. And employees and contractors must take a 20-minute online training course on safety protocols.

"We're not rushing into anything," utility spokesman Neil Nissan said.

CenterPoint, meanwhile, will start a phased return to work July 6 and anticipates that a full return could stretch out over several months or longer, spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said.

"While we believe that we'll be prepared for employees to return to workplaces on this date, we also understand that the COVID-19 guidelines will be different across our footprint," Dixon said by email. "July 6 is our starting point, but it's not a requirement."

For office buildings, the company will observe a maximum 20% occupancy when the first wave of employees returns.

New normal at MidAmerican

Like many other utilities, MidAmerican has already implemented enhanced cleaning and sanitizing processes and staggered start times for employees who have continued working at company facilities.

To accommodate regular staffing levels, MidAmerican is taking additional steps, Greenwood said. The utility modified offices to accommodate social distancing between desks. Employees will have temperatures taken when they enter buildings and will be supplied cloth masks. Capacity is being limited in common areas and conference rooms, and the company installed signs to direct traffic flow to maintain recommended spacing.

The company also has an application-based program for some employees who want additional flexibility to work from home.

Greenwood said only a "small number" of MidAmerican employees have so far tested positive for the coronavirus across the utility's service area, which also covers parts of Illinois, South Dakota and Nebraska.

"The employees who did test positive have recovered," he said. "The measures we've taken and will continue to take have proven effective."

Twitter: @jefftomichEmail: jtomich@eenews.net

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