Working as Essential Personnel in a Pandemic

The view from a Pittsburgh District shoreline during COVID-19.

Published May 14, 2020
Pittsburgh District lock personnel are practicing safe procedures during COVID-19.

Pittsburgh District lock personnel are practicing safe procedures during COVID-19.

Wake up, put on a pair boots, a hard hat and a life jacket: this is Kevin Bricker’s daily routine as he heads to work an 8-hour shift as a lock operator on the Allegheny River.

That was until the coronavirus pandemic hit western Pennsylvania.

Now he has to wear a face mask to work, sanitize everything he touches and maintain a six-foot distance from his coworkers at all times. Like many people across the world – such as nurses, caregivers, grocery store employees and first responders – Bricker is one of many “essential personnel” who cannot do his job from his house and has to risk infection every day.

“The American public needs us out here, getting our jobs done. They need the 12-hour nurse or trauma doctor, the people who get the jobs done that they can’t do,” said Bricker. “We come with the attitude that, yes, this has to get done. Nobody can get this job done but us. It’s a brave new world.”

The dangers of his job are not lost on Bricker; while he knows his job is vital to the nation, he is conscious of the risks.

“What if I go in and touch something contaminated? The guys before me sanitized everything, but with the risk of just going out of my house every day, it’s in the back of my mind,” said Bricker. “All the time, to protect myself, the people I work with and my family. I don’t want to take anything home to them, nor do I want to bring anything in here.”

Lock operators play a critical role in the U.S. economy, enabling barges and other ships to transport goods and commodities via the nation’s rivers. Four locks on the lower Monongahela River enabled nearly 6.7 million tons of cargo to traverse the waterways last year alone. In a COVID-19 era, lock facilities are operating under a new normal.

“Everyone’s putting in 110% to make sure we’re adhering to CDC guidelines,” said Mike Clark, lock and dam equipment supervisor at four West Virginia facilities. “You walk in here and it smells like a hospital, but we’re still getting things done. Operators have more time to help mechanics, working on new signs and doing critical maintenance. They’re adapting to the new situation.”

Both locks and recreation sites have limited the number of personnel on-site, resulting in longer workweeks and additional overtime to keep themselves, their coworkers and their families safe.  

“Everyone is working about 16 hours of overtime a pay period,” said Emily Potter, natural resource manager at Conemaugh River Lake. “We’ve had more time to focus on environmental-stewardship and flood-control management missions. We’re still doing critical preventative maintenance and getting big jobs done.”

While facility staff are finding solutions to their new occupational hazards, they are facing new challenges: bringing essential summer staff onboard without putting them at risk.

“We’re going to train summer staff virtually so that they meet their training requirements and are ready for the recreation season,” said Joe Kolodziej, park ranger. “Even though we’re focusing on essential tasks, we’re protecting our workforce and our future workforce while delivering the mission.”

Hundreds of Corps personnel are adapting to their new circumstances across the district. While each facility faces its own challenges, staff continue to accomplish what needs done.

“I am extremely proud of the teamwork and professionalism displayed across the district during this unique and trying period in history,” said Col. Andrew Short, commander, Pittsburgh District. “Their courage and commitment epitomizes the excellence we aspire to achieve here in the Pittsburgh District.”

Although there are challenges working as an essential employee in a COVID world, district staff remain resilient and see a silver lining.

“The closures, minimized staffing and limited access to the public show that this organization cares,” said Potter. “We care for our people and the public by reducing exposure. Even if it means overtime for us, we’re doing what we can to finish the mission and get done what needs done. I think we’ve gotten through the worst and can start working our way back towards normalcy.”