Utilities seek to protect employees, support customers
Major utility companies across the state are taking proactive measures against the coronavirus to keep employees safe and to mitigate the financial fallout on their ratepayers.
Delmarva Power & Light, which employs hundreds of people in the state, started cleaning during off-hours at its locations and regularly disinfecting heavy “touchpoint” areas. It also encouraged staff members to hold conference calls or video calls instead of meeting in person.
Many Delmarva Power departments have started to work from home, and the company has ended any gatherings of 25 or more employees, officials told Delaware Business Times.
“Employees traveling for customer calls are taking precautions through use of protective equipment, if needed, as well as practicing social distancing by keeping 6 feet from themselves and customers,” Delmarva Power Senior Communications Specialist Tim Stokes told DBT.
Delaware Electric Cooperative also started “enhanced cleaning” their offices, including doorknobs and stairway railings two weeks ago, according to spokesman Jeremy Tucker. Hand sanitizer stations had also been added to the office.
“As this crisis steepens, we will be exploring work from home options, as our supervisors and our engineers have moved to right now,” Tucker told DBT. “But all options are on the table. We provide a vital service, and we need to keep working.”
Delaware Electric Cooperative, with 155 employees, still plans on sending out service workers to transformers, all while keeping in mind the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for social distancing and washing hands.
“It’s our job to keep the lights on,” Tucker said.
Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation has not has its internal operations hit hard yet, but that’s because it sells electricity wholesale to nine municipalities throughout the state, which in turn bills about 137,000 customers combined.
Right now, DMEC Director of Media Relations and Communications Heather Contant said they are in constant communication with its nine municipal customers, particular the city of Newark, about online billing. Seven of the eight COVID-19 cases are connected to University of Delaware.
“Here, we take it day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour at this point as information is released,” Contant said.
Meanwhile, Artesian Water Co. has been mitigating exposure to coronavirus by sanitizing high touchpoints multiple times a day, as well as cutting down employee gatherings to 25 or less. The water company employs an estimated 200 people and provides water to 86,500 customers in the state.
“Hand wipe containers and hand sanitizer bottles have also been added throughout the facility and employees encouraged to use them regularly. Additionally crew have been utilizing sanitizer and gloves when out in the community,” Artesian spokeswoman Virginia Eisenbrey said.
Artesian also postponed non-emergency appointments in customer homes and commercial properties until further notice. Employees who can work from home are required to do so, and field crews are taking vehicles home so they don’t need to come to the office every morning.
In addition, cross-trained individuals within departments have been directed to not interact in person with each other in an effort to ensure adequate staffing during the duration of the pandemic, Eisenbrey said.
Artesian Water, Delmarva Power and Chesapeake Utilities Company, a natural gas company that serves five states including Delaware, have all closed their customer service offices to limit exposure. Instead, people are asked to pay their bills either through the company’s online portals or through a drop-off mailbox on the premises.
Chesapeake Utilities launched a website on Monday to address many coronavirus questions. Field employees are “following rigid safety precautions” like hand washing, sanitizing, wearing gloves and avoiding contact with hard surfaces like tables and doors.
“Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by the virus, and we recognize the uncertainty and personal impact this situation may have on our customers,” Chesapeake Utilities Corporation President and CEO Jeff Householder said in a statement. “We will continue to take additional steps as needed to help limit the spread of the virus in our communities, but we will keep our customers in mind as we make those decisions.”
Delmarva Power has also suspended service disconnections and waived new late payment fees through at least May 1. Stokes said those waivers will be granted if customers meet a specific criterion, but DPL also offers payment options like averaging payments over a 12-month period or flexible installment plans.
When asked about the potential financial impact on Delmarva for offering the billing grace period, Stokes said that, right now, all eyes are on the community’s well-being.
“Our focus remains on ensuring the health and safety of our employees, customers and communities, and providing safe and reliable energy service,” he said.
Delaware Electricity Cooperative also waived late fees and will be halting disconnects for its 98,000 members in Kent and Sussex counties. Payment options are also available. Tucker said the cooperative was in solid financial ground to withstand whatever economic impact that could bring.
“We should be fine for a while. People are going to be out of work or laid off, and we need to be respectful of that during this time,” he said.
Chesapeake Utilities has followed suit and is suspending service disconnections and waiving late payment fees until at least May 1, although customers are also encouraged to use online payment options.
Artesian encourages customers to call if they have concerns making timely payments.
“[There are] many options to assist customers and we remain willing and able to work with our customers, especially knowing the additional strains many are experiencing during this time,” Eisenbrey said.
To learn more about Delmarva Power’s payment options, call 1-800-375-7117. To discuss payment options for Delaware Electric Cooperative, call 855-332-9090.
Artesian customers who need to start or stop service or need financial assistance should call 302-453-6930 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
By Katie Tabeling