Hoosier Energy adapts workforce to keep employees safe, continue service to member cooperatives

EnergyLines May 2020


Hoosier Energy created a pandemic plan about 10 years ago when the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations suggested that businesses prepare for an influenza A outbreak.


That plan anticipated up to 35 percent of the workforce being sick and unavailable to work. It also included aggressive cleaning and disinfecting of all facilities, as well as the potential of shifting from normal operations to remote work and staggering workers to limit their contact with the public and other employees.


“Our mission is to keep our employees healthy, so we can continue to serve our members. I believe our plan has allowed us to take steps to achieve those two very critical goals,” says Vice President of Corporate Services Chris Blunk.


As information about COVID-19 – the novel coronavirus – spread, Blunk decided in early February to ask members of the training and safety group to update the existing pandemic plan with information from the CDC on the virus.


“Even though we have a plan, we have to remain flexible and agile. We have to be poised to react to whatever each day brings,” says Blunk. “Our plan was originally written a decade ago, but this virus is new, and we are learning more and more about it every day.”


Blunk leads the incident command team with representatives from operations, communications, cybersecurity and network operations, technology support, human resources, IT applications, finance and safety.


While attendance is fluid, daily WebEx meetings generally include Blunk, Rob Horton, Matt Mabrey, Will Kaufman, Ryan Henderson, Greg Seiter, Heather Hughet, Richie Field, Jenna Narey, Lance Davis Sr., Jon Bobbitt, Jon Jackson, Kyle Parker and Kevin Burch.


“It’s absolutely critical to have each area of the business represented in that group,” says Blunk. “These are the core areas that really have to be engaged and involved so we can continue to work on behalf of our members and keep Hoosier Energy moving forward.”


As federal and state officials began pushing for people to stay home and minimize their exposure to others, Hoosier Energy started an aggressive plan to move the administrative workforce into work-at-home scenarios.


Richie Field, senior manager of cybersecurity and network operations, and Jenna Narey, technology support services team leader, and their staffs worked collaboratively to ensure employees were able to seamlessly continue their work remotely.


“Our system was really always prepared for this, because we have a VPN (virtual private network) solution that people use on a pretty regular basis,” Field says, adding that prior to the shift from offices to homes, about 35 users logged into VPN per day. That number has gone up to 200. “We’re actually licensed for 300 concurrent users with the hardware and license we have.”


With a planned test scheduled for Friday, March 13, Narey’s staff spent the day before working with employees to ensure they had proper equipment, as well as the knowledge and ability to get logged in via VPN. Any issues that came up were quickly addressed. “We learned that laptops would not be sufficient for an extended period, so we started receiving requests for monitors, keyboards and docking stations,” Narey says. “We only had limited quantities of those items, so we coordinated pickup of items we had in stock and allowed employees to take their monitors and docking stations from their office to their homes.


Another issue that came up was encountering limited internet access in rural areas. Narey found a solution: She acquired a universal carrier hotspot device that she configured for employees with limited internet access and shipped directly to their homes.


“In the future, it would be beneficial to transition employees with desktops to laptops, where possible,” she says. “Right now, desktop users have a temporary solution of using a loaner laptop and connecting remotely to existing desktops still onsite.”


Field adds that most of the help tickets received by his department have been mainly for VPN and WebEx issues, which he says is really not out of the ordinary.


“In two days, the entire country had a major shift in how knowledge workers work,” Field says. “What we learned is, it is possible to work from home, even if it isn’t ideal. This might help people be more comfortable with the idea of being able to work from pretty much anywhere.”


Operations: Working at home isn’t an option


As offices started to transition into homes, the majority of the generation, transmission and distribution workforce did not have that option. “They’re the boots on the ground,” says Chief Operating Officer Rob Horton. “The workforce has stepped up, and they’re doing a phenomenal job. Everybody’s working well together.”


When isolating isn’t an option, social distancing can be a real challenge. “If you’re at the power plant or working on a transmission distribution system, practicing six feet apart at all times is not physically possible,” Horton says. In those instances, personal hygiene and alerting when someone isn’t feeling well is being stressed. Facilities are also being deep cleaned with easy access to hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. “I understand the sacrifices they’re making, and overall the folks have really stepped up here.”


To reduce the risk of infection, Merom Generating Station has a fixed rotation of the same personnel working 12-hour shifts for 14 consecutive days. While the first 14-day rotation had more people, the second transitioned into 12 people on dayshift and six on nightshift. After 14 days, new dayshift and nightshift crews are set up, according to plant manager Karl Back, who says the schedule greatly restricts crew interaction with outside personnel, because when they’re not working, they’re sleeping.


“We have had to take some extreme measures to protect our employees,” Back says. “Our people are responding very well to a difficult situation, which is not surprising to me with the culture we have at Hoosier Energy.”


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