To keep the lights on during COVID-19 emergency, power company workers sequester in the office

Utility providers in New York and Tallahassee are housing employees at work.

April 2, 2020, 11:52 AM

Think how much worse this coronavirus crisis would be if the power went out.

That’s one of the reasons utility operators, the people who run your electricity service, are taking steps to sequester employees in offices, power stations, and control rooms to keep everything running.

Thirty-seven employees of the New York Independent System Operator, a private company that runs part of the electricity grid in New York, are living in RVs and trailers at two of the company's facilities.

An undated photo shared by the City of Tallahassee in Florida shows RVs set up to house utility workers during the COVID19 pandemic.
City of Tallahassee

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One of those employees, Tim Pasquini, said he volunteered because about two years ago he got 10 weeks of paid leave to be home with his newborn son, thanks to the paid family leave law in New York state.

“It's something everyone in the state of New York pays into. And I got that benefit because of everyone, I see it more as giving back to everyone else in this time where there's like a pandemic going on,” he told ABC News.

Pasquini said the past week that he’s lived at the facility felt kind of like camping and that he sees people on calls with their families every day, but that he could see it getting old if it goes on for too long.

“Last week we had a couple nice, sunny days -- we were all out in lawn chairs hanging out outside our trailers. Someone brought a guitar. We've been trying to stay busy, we have cornhole we've been playing in the parking lot. And we got a bunch of board games, things like that,” he said.

The City of Tallahassee in Florida also has about 120 employees working in power plants and maintaining power and natural gas service to its more than 123,000 customers. They opted to have some of the workforce sequestered a week at a time so employees can trade off weeks home with their family, while also following strict social distancing protocols.

An undated photo shared by the City of Tallahassee in Florida shows a makeshift setup to house utility workers during the COVID19 pandemic.
City of Tallahassee

General Manager Rob McGarrah said the city is used to housing employees for a few days during hurricanes but had to figure out how to adapt that plan to provide everything they need for weeks, including coordinating meal deliveries from local restaurants, renting dozens of RVs, and converting offices into living spaces.

McGarrah is still going home right now but Chief Electric System Operator Alan Gale is living in a converted office so he can continue to work. Gale said his wife is considered high risk so she has more freedom if he’s out of the house and when he goes home he’ll work out in his shed.

“The way we look at it is, we're sleeping there. It's better than having a hurricane and having to restore power. So we're just operating and being sequestered, and I've got 9 out of my 15 people are previous military members so it's better than being deployed it's better than being on a submarine or on a ship,” he said, comparing the situation to his 22 years on nuclear submarines in the Navy.

And as a bonus, Gale said, at least he got his office cleaned.

Rich Dewey, President and CEO of the NY ISO, said they’re lucky to have a dedicated team committed to maintaining service during the emergency.

“When you start looking at everything that is being endured down in New York City with all of the disruptions in day to day life and, and, and the horrible, you know, medical situation they got, you know, just imagine how much more horrible it would be if the lights weren't on,” he said.

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