For 37 years, I have worked in the electric cooperative industry. I have battled for needed legislation. I have been challenged by members passionate about their beliefs. I have been hammered by weather events time and time again. But I have never been slapped upside the head by a pandemic and issued “stay-at-home” orders like we did in March 2020.
Through every battle, pounding and challenge over the decades, I have seen dedicated cooperative employees rise to the occasion. While I am not surprised, I am immensely proud that it happened once again.
As the pandemic grew and our response became obvious (and later mandated), the Cherryland employee group came together like it was nothing more than a small disruption in their everyday lives. In an almost 24-hour period, we had every person who could work from home at home and functioning at a high level.
Moving dozens of people to work remotely only happened because employees were prepared, willing and up for the challenge. Years ago, the ability to answer calls from home was put into place. Our automated meter reading system was installed 14 years ago. Remote control of our distribution system has been steadily increasing for the past several years. Supervisors have been dispatching crews from home every weekend and in every storm since I arrived in 2003.
When I sat down with the Cherryland management team— Frank Siepker, Mark Wilson, Kerry Kalbfleisch, Jeff Puffer, and Rachel Johnson—there was no panic, no tension, and no “holy crap are we in trouble now.” It was a steady, measured checklist of items to cross off. The attitude was, “Yup, this is different, but it isn’t our first storm and won’t be our last. Let’s move.” Every supervisor rallied their teams, and cooperative functions were dispersed to kitchen tables, living rooms, and basements throughout our region.
After the stay-at-home order, field work was reduced to reliability and outage functions only. Metering continued to replace stopped meters based on daily reports from our automated system. Member services took calls as if we were open. For safety reasons, it was necessary to continue doing MISS DIG locates in the field. Accounting operated at home and also in the office when necessary to use printers and mainframe functions that just could not be moved off-site. Our IT team has always been able to work from anywhere at any time. Engineering, supervision, and administration were all dispersed from the beginning.
At the headquarters in Grawn, we had one person in the office processing payments to keep cash flowing into our bank accounts. One person remained in the warehouse to take shipments and stock needed materials. A third, our mechanic, remained on-site to keep all the machinery ready to go at a moment’s notice. Just like that, we went from a workforce of 59 on-site to three (spaced very far apart!).
As I write this, nobody knows how long this will continue, and it is about day 11 of our work-from-home period. Everybody seems to have settled into a “new normal.” Routines are finding their stride. Video meetings are commonplace. Nobody wants it to last, but everyone is prepared for whatever comes.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Cherryland membership for its stellar response. We have experienced much kindness, support, patience, and words of encouragement from those we serve. This, too, is not surprising. Throughout all the storms and battles of the past, Cherryland members have always responded with grace and kindness when we needed it the most. We have always survived together, and we will come out of this pandemic together.