By Leah Wilson
In March 2020, an email was sent WAPA-wide that few employees were expecting: WAPA was transitioning to a maximum telework stance, effective immediately. COVID-19 was – and more than a year later remains – a constantly evolving situation, so there were of course many questions, not all of which had definitive answers.
How long would employees be out of the office? Was it possible for everyone to telework? Who would be allowed at their duty stations? What precautions would be taken for those who would continue to work in the office or in the field? The uncertainty impacted WAPA employees in many different ways.
WAPA stood up its Multiregional Coordination Group and regional Emergency Operations Centers as well as established a number of key working groups to keep a close eye on developments from the very beginning. This meant that employees received regular updates and revised policies regarding telework, travel, visitors, authorized employees in workspaces, safety and social distancing.
Adapting to change
“The suddenness of the change to remote work made everyone quickly develop electronic workflows,” said Records and Information Management Program Manager Christopher Magee. “On top of all the workforce issues, the significant issues of social justice permeated all of our lives. This caused tremendous stress and concern that impacted people’s abilities to work.”
The quick change led many employees to think outside the box and transform the way their work had been accomplished in the past.
Electric Power Training Center Manager Kyle Conroy explained, “The EPTC suspended in-person training in March and the team has worked hard to develop and integrate a low-cost alternative via a Virtual Instructor-Led Training program.”
Conroy’s team adapted through the technology available to them, quickly learned how to use the WebEx Training module, developed a new series of courses to deliver to WAPA and EPTC partners and has continued to deliver this training throughout the year.
By the end of March, regions began developing sequestration plans. In April, volunteer employees ran sequestration exercises to identify any issues or shortcomings.
“The pandemic struck after only a few weeks of beginning my role as the acting procurement manager at Rocky Mountain,” said Supervisory Contract Specialist Leslie Sayre. “It was important for the region to be able to determine a path forward in which to maintain mission-essential functions and protection of specialized personnel.”
Sayre explained that sequestration is when an employee with no confirmed exposure risk and no symptoms of COVID-19 is proactively isolated on site for an extended period so that they may continue performing their job function.
“In this case, the control room personnel needed to be kept safe, as they are considered mission-essential personnel and unable to perform their duties remotely,” she continued. “This meant having to figure out a way to sequester these employees if the time came.”
No movement beyond the designated sequestration area and no interpersonal contact with individuals outside of the defined area for the designated period are allowed during sequestration.
“Many options were tossed around to meet this need but, ultimately, renting recreational vehicles was determined to be the safest and most cost-effective way to do this,” said Sayre. “A team was put together, led by Cansu Teano who continuously updated senior management.”
This team was made up of various personnel throughout WAPA and had to determine how many RVs would be needed, how they would be acquired, how long they would be needed and other considerations, such as linens, kitchenware and blackwater waste disposal.
“Ultimately, the RVs were kept onsite for approximately three months and, thankfully, they were never needed,” said Sayre.
“Getting RVs, getting food memos signed and figuring out potential pay for sequestered employees,” were top priorities in the sequestration planning efforts, said Supervisory Contract Specialist Jerad Gaines.
A year of COVID-19 came with challenges and tribulations. As the pandemic unfolded, many WAPA employees adjusted to separating working areas from living areas while teleworking.
On top of personal struggles, WAPA employees made it their mission to check in with their own teams during this difficult time.
“Dedicating the time to check in and see how colleagues were doing, whether related to new work processes, COVID-19 impacts or social justice issues, as well as embracing flexibility, empathy and openness,” was an obstacle in itself, according to Magee.
“You can’t overcommunicate,” he said. “A unique challenge is building comradery and celebrating successes and achievements in meaningful ways.”
A year of COVID-19 has brought more than just challenges, however; it’s also brought an opportunity to learn from the experience. Some employees have even adjusted to the point that they are able to exceed their pre-pandemic productivity.
“I have found that I am more efficient working from home and get more done,” said Power System Dispatcher Trainer Rick Krumpeck.
Conroy similarly said that transferring from in-person to online learning via WebEx represents a positive innovation for WAPA.
“It generates durable, long-term benefits to the EPTC, WAPA and our business partners and customers,” he said.
For those who are still finding it difficult to work away from the office, Lead Management and Program Analyst Laura Dawson has advice.
“There are best practices on working from home that are worthy of a revisit from time to time,” she said. “The one-year mark of COVID is as good a milestone as any to check in with yourself. What’s working for you? What’s not working for you? What are you willing to change to be more comfortable? In reflecting a little on this myself, I’ve set a couple goals to help me manage my stress level.”
Many viewed the pandemic as a time to slow down and reevaluate work-life balance, some learned to bake banana bread and others used it as a time to reconnect with colleagues or loved ones.
The personal experiences of each employee are bound to differ in significant ways, but WAPA has worked hard to maintain a safe, secure and sustainable work experience for all of its federal and contract employees.
In doing so, the organization has successfully kept the lights on for more than 40 million Americans during a full pandemic year. And counting.
Note: Wilson is an administrative analyst who works under the Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs contract.