Survey: Pandemic affecting water sector staffing, supply chains

The water sector is grappling with staff shortages and clogged supply chains triggered by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) of its utility and service provider members.

Forty percent of the 416 utilities that responded to the survey said they currently are struggling to hire staff, especially for the positions of water operator, service technician and driver. In addition, utility respondents indicated their employee turnover rate has nearly doubled to 21 percent, compared to 11 percent earlier in 2021. Illnesses and quarantining have impacted field and water treatment operations in about 30 percent of surveyed utilities.

Among non-utility respondents, 55 percent of organizations reporting hiring issues said they are struggling to fill engineering positions, followed by service technicians (36 percent) and administrative positions (27 percent).

The AWWA survey, conducted Oct. 5-20, is the fifth in a series of surveys to assess the real time impact of the coronavirus pandemic on AWWA member organizations. The latest survey generated 455 responses, including 416 unique utilities and 28 from consultants, manufacturers, service providers and other non-utility members. Larger utilities, especially those serving populations over 100,000, typically reported more challenges than smaller utilities.

Seventy-two percent of responding utilities reported difficulty obtaining pipes or other infrastructure components. Utilities also reported supply chain issues with vehicles (48 percent of respondents), electronic equipment (46 percent) and chemicals (45 percent).

Concern about the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) has dropped, with 11 percent of utilities indicating a current supply issue compared to a high of 56 percent in April 2020.

At the start of the pandemic, the most common utility efforts to help financially burdened customers included suspending water shutoffs and/or late payments, with nearly 90 percent and 80 percent of utilities, respectively, enacting these policies. Of the utility respondents in the latest survey, about 63 percent had re-instituted shutoffs and late fees. Additionally, 34 percent of utility survey respondents said their customers had access to some type of Customer Assistance Program (CAP) prior to the pandemic and another 38 percent said they established such a program during the pandemic.

Just 10 percent of all survey respondents reported difficulty getting vaccination access and priority, a significant drop from 36 percent earlier in 2021. Fifty-nine percent reported that at least half of their employees are vaccinated, including 58 percent of utilities and 77 percent of non-utilities. Most organizations are tracking vaccination status.

Seventy-one percent of all respondents said their organizations do not have a vaccine requirement policy and are not considering one. Twelve percent of utility respondents reported having a vaccine requirement, including 29 percent of very large organizations. Twenty-one percent of non-utility respondents reported having a vaccine requirement.

More information is available on AWWA’s COVID-19 resource page.

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