PSEG Long Island has enacted measures aimed at limiting the spread of coronavirus to customers and employees, closing 11 customer walk-in centers by day’s end, creating a "SWAT team" to respond to electrical issues at homes with potentially infected customers, and allowing most customer service reps to work from home.
PSEG, as other utilities in the state, also has ceased shut-offs to customers. The company is also going back to the 500 or so customers who have had power turned off for any number of reasons in recent months and turning them back on, where appropriate, said Daniel Eichhorn, president of PSEG Long Island. The company is also suspending late-payment fees, he said.
PSEG has enacted a crisis-management team to examine protocols across the territory, treating the pandemic with the same urgency as a major weather event, he said.
“We consider ourselves first responders,” he said. “Emergencies are in our blood. This is another emergency.”
The utility has plenty of power for the season, typically a lower-usage period, even with many more customers working from home, he added.
PSEG is implementing new procedures for the infrequent occasions when field service technicians or other employees need to enter a home. In the event of an inside repair, workers have been trained to ask customers three levels of questions — about whether customers have someone sick in the home, whether anyone has tested positive for the coronavirus, or whether they have been in contact with someone who was. They will suit up with appropriate levels of protective clothing depending on the response.
In the scenario of an infected customer, PSEG has organized a “SWAT” team of 46 field service reps to work across the region who will have the highest protective gear for cases in which customers require an inside-home visit. Only about 25-50 cases a day require home visits out of the 10,000 calls a day the company receives for some type of service, Eichhorn said.
PSEG will stop reading the meters of customers whose device is indoors, turning instead to estimates based on past usage. Around half of the region’s 1.1 million customers now have smart meters that automatically send usage data directly to the company.
PSEG at 5 p.m. Tuesday will close 11 walk-in centers across Long Island until further notice. The 500 or so customers who typically use them have been informed of the planned closures and told of other ways to make payments. The company will also post an information box at the centers with packets that tell customers how to contact the company or pay bills in other ways.
At its offices and work depots, PSEG is limiting work groups. “We’re splitting people up so that no more than 20 people are in same location or in the same room,” he said, while practicing new sanitizing practices in line with state and federal guidelines.
To keep groups smaller, the company is placing five trailers at certain locations and requiring people work from those to cut down on worker clusters. At present, no PSEG employees have been diagnosed with the virus, but six are self-isolating because of potential contacts with someone who has, Eichhorn said.
A bigger move to cut down on potential contacts involves allowing its employees to work from home. Of the company’s total workforce of around 2,500, around 1,200 are now working from home, he said, and 1,350 will be by week’s end.
That includes representatives who answer the roughly 10,000 calls PSEG receives on a typical day. Today, around 57% of the company’s total 322 billing and customer service reps are working from home, a figure that will increase by 80% by midweek. or around 250 people, Eichhorn said.
Since that effort started on a larger scale this week, he added, response times have been better than the typical average, with calls answered in 10 seconds compared with the typical 18-19 seconds.
All nonessential travel for conferences, training and meetings has been canceled. In addition, Eichhorn said the company will also suspend community volunteer events, including community cleanups and park restorations planned for the month of April.
Other local utilities are taking similar actions to avoid virus spread, protect employees and customers and respond to service calls. National Grid spokeswoman Wendy Ladd said customer walk-in centers remained open but said the company was "assessing the situation as it evolves." In any case, she said, customers are encouraged to transact online, including paying bills, at ngrid.com/billpay.
National Grid employees continue to report to work sites, she said, but certain support employees "can work from home" in cases "where it makes sense for the roles they perform."
National Grid is limiting external meetings and visitors, restricting travel among its offices, ceasing international business travel, and disinfecting offices more often, Ladd said. Along that line, National Grid has canceled remaining meetings to discuss long-term options for gas supply to the region. Instead, it will hold five "virtual meetings" starting March 23 at 6 p.m. that will allow customers to provide opportunities for oral and written comment. More information is available at ngrid.com/longtermsolutions.
The Suffolk County Water Authority, which like PSEG, New York American Water and National Grid has suspended service shutoffs, is also suspending "all non-essential customer in-home appointments until further notice and limiting public access to SCWA offices."