When the World Health Organization categorized COVID-19 as a global pandemic in March 2020, it triggered a response from the natural gas and electric utility sectors as classified critical infrastructure providers. From the very beginning of the pandemic, Black Hills Energy’s response kept safety at the core of every decision and every action taken to keep our workforce healthy and safe so we could sustain business operations and provide essential energy to our customers.
When COVID-19 hit, Black Hills Energy was ready.
From the very start of the pandemic, planning and communication were key for a company that serves 823 communities across eight states. Early in January 2020, CEO Linn Evans and Stephanie Dowling, director of strategic communications, brand management and public relations made the decision to develop a pandemic plan to complement Black Hills Energy’s existing crisis plan. A team convened and began meeting on a regular basis, following CDC guidelines and communicating with peer utilities, local hospitals and other organizations. “We had our team meet every morning and afternoon because things were starting to rapidly change,” says Dowling.
On March 16, 2020, the first big change took place—senior leadership made the decision to send office workers home to work virtually. At that point, the crisis team established its Ready2Work response plan. A short time later, a Ready2Return team also began planning for the return to work, which occurred June 2021.
Communication with employees remained a huge component of the Ready2Work plan. Evans launched weekly corporate-wide virtual “huddles” for the entire employee population. The huddles allowed leadership to share the latest information during the uncertain days of the pandemic.
While most employees began working remotely, essential staff—those responsible for the direct management of power and gas operations—continued to work onsite but with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. “These were critical operations employees,” says Stuart Wevik, senior vice president of utility operations. “The company cannot serve customers without these operators.”
Black Hills Energy provided essential employees with onsite mobile living arrangements (RV campers) adjacent to their worksites. Employees worked shifts of two weeks on, living safely in individual RVs to ensure the continuation of services to our customers. During this time, we also provided additional resources to the families of employees sequestered onsite.
Our crisis team also established a contact tracing team for reported employee cases. Team members were certified in contact tracing following completion of training from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Val Simpson, regional manager of community affairs, says the company’s emphasis on supporting its communities through employee volunteerism was especially put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the pandemic, the company shifted its approach and emphasis to have more impact with our charitable giving. “We have a long history of giving back,” she says. “We really made a concerted effort in 2020 to make sure the dollars we donate went where they were most needed in light of COVID.”
Our team coordinated our efforts across all our communities, with $375,000 earmarked to address food insecurity and emergency pandemic efforts of United Way organizations. “We knew our communities and customers were impacted in a significant way,” Simpson says. “And we wanted to be among the first to help.”
Another $225,000 went to the energy assistance program, Black Hills Cares, which helped 2,500 families in need. In total, Black Hills Energy’s 2020 charitable giving totaled $5.6 million, directed at local organizations supporting individuals and businesses impacted by COVID-19. Through it all, Black Hills Energy looked out for our customers. We temporarily suspended late payment charges and nonpayment disconnections. Customer service made calls to customers who were past due to share information about assistance programs. Customers were offered payment plans and assistance programs.
From customer communications to employee support to supply chain, Black Hills Energy pivoted to make it all work. Simpson says the phrase that best fits the past 15 months is “COVID forced us to get creative.” She believes the company succeeded, finding new ways to do what it’s always done—take care of its people, its communities and its customers.