106 union employees
40 seasonal employees
Service area: 17 square miles
Annual operating budget: $27 million
Early on, medial experts thought the H1N1 virus that's killed almost 1,500 people worldwide originated in Wisconsin. While this theory was later debunked, the state's 6,222 cases - the largest number nationwide - gave Beloit, a community of 37,000 just north of the Illinois border, an excellent dry run in preparing a pandemic continuity of operations plan (COOP) that addresses novel legal and administrative issues.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, H1N1 is neither swine nor avian flu, but a hybrid capable of reducing an operation's workforce by 25% to 50%. Symptoms and transmission are virtually identical to the flu. But unlike the flu, the virus lives on surfaces for 24 hours and the recommended social distance - the space between an infected person and others - is larger: 6 feet.
Armed with this knowledge, Public Works Operations Director Christine Walsh led the effort to educate managers and employees on their rights and responsibilities as first-responders, and prioritize the activities of five divisions -- engineering, operations, parks and leisure services, transit, and water resources - to ensure that services that would prevent the spread of contagion aren't cut. The entire process took two weeks.
"Ask yourself: At what percentage of sick employees can we still get these required tasks done?" she says. The solid waste operation determined its plan of action in half a day.
All employees received a free flu shot. Walsh suggests requiring employees to sign an opt-out agreement to prevent those who get sick from later claiming they weren't given the opportunity to receive one.
To limit exposure, solid waste, tree, and streets crews receive their assignments each morning on a staggered schedule: every 10 minutes, one group leaves the meeting room before the next one enters.
Because most hospitals won't test for the disease, which is the only way to confirm an infection, managers have the right to send sick employees home - and have done so. Employees may not return to work until they've been symptom-free for 24 hours, and the unions agreed members aren't entitled to additional sick days if they run out of leave before then. The unions also waived the requirement for a doctor's note to justify five or more days of sick leave.
The department has asked vendors to estimate how long it will take to procure necessary supplies, such as fuel, and is developing inventory contracts with critical suppliers.
American Public Works Association Congress & Exposition
Session: H1N1 Virus/Public Works Prepares
Sun., Sept. 13, 2009
Christine Walsh, Director of Operations
City of Beloit, Wis.