Legal & Regulatory

FERC, NARUC Want Utility Workers Designated as ‘Essential’

Two agencies aligned with the power generation industry, including the group representing state public service commissioners who regulate utility services, including energy, telecommunications, and water, are asking state regulators to designate utility company workers as essential to the nation’s critical infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) on March 26 said they would partner in their response efforts to the coronavirus outbreak, working together to ensure the reliability of U.S. electricity transmission and distribution systems.

The groups issued a joint statement Thursday, one week after the U.S. Homeland Security Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a memorandum that listed what that group considers the essential workforce during the pandemic. The list included health care workers and law enforcement, along with some government workers and public safety officials.

“Every aspect of responding to the pandemic—be it hospitals, public safety or workforce continuity of operations —all depend on reliable utility systems,” said NARUC President Brandon Presley. “The need is present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the utility personnel responsible for ensuring the safety and functionality of our critical infrastructure should be included in any discussion or designation of essential workers.”

The International District Energy Association on March 25 sent a letter to the CISA asking that the “District Energy Systems Workforce” be added to the list of essential workers.

“Our Commission has not had to address the absurd notion that utility workers aren’t essential,” said Tim Echols, vice-chairman of the Georgia Public Service Commission, in an email to POWER. “Shut the power down, and with it all the Netflix powering-modems for just 48 hours, and before that food in the fridge ruins any reluctant officials would designate utility workers as superheroes.”

Workforce Designations

The federal government grants authority for such workforce designations to state governments. FERC and NARUC in their statement noted their agencies support these designations for the energy, water and telecommunications industries, and they maintain it is the best interest of the entire nation for state and local officials to consider workers in those industries as essential employees when it comes to critical infrastructure. FERC and NARUC are consulting together on their responses and actions concerning COVID-19.

“It is vital for the safety and security of our nation that there is no disruption in the services that Homeland Security identified, including those involving energy, during this unprecedented emergency,” FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee said. “I am pleased to join with President Presley to encourage state and local authorities to consider the employees who maintain critical infrastructure, including line workers on the power grid and the operators on the pipelines, as essential so they can continue to keep these services available. I greatly appreciate Homeland Security’s leadership in producing this critical guidance, and I am pleased to link arms with President Presley and all of our colleagues at NARUC in encouraging the states to adopt it.”

The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), in an email Friday to POWER, said it supports a move to consider utility workers essential during the pandemic. Brydon Ross, CEA vice president of State Affairs, said, “Utility workers are first responders under ordinary circumstances, keeping the lights on for our families and small businesses all the time—be it fixing power lines after a wind storm or hurricane, or just ensuring that our electrical grid is robust and operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At a time of crisis like this, it should go without saying that they are essential workers.”

NARUC and FERC in their statement Thursday said representatives of both agencies will continue to meet periodically “and welcome the input of members of the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Energy Officials. These meetings will allow groups to provide briefings and updates, discuss matters of mutual interest and keep the public informed of any new developments.”

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine). For continuous updates from the power generation sector on the impact of COVID-19 on the industry, and the industry’s response, bookmark this page on the POWER website.

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