CEDAR RAPIDS — Street repairs are considered essential services in the age of the coronavirus, and for Samuel Reicks that means he can stay productive.
He is a concrete finisher for the Cedar Rapids streets department. On Thursday, his crew was replacing failing concrete panels on Broadlawn Drive SE, near East Post Road SE. Moisture and other deterioration had caused portions to crack and buckle.
“It is nice to be at work and having a job that is need out there,” said Reicks, 30, who commutes from Center Point. Being young and healthy, he said he is comfortable coming to work.
Roughly 60 to 65 percent of the 200 staff members in the Cedar Rapids public works department, largely in streets, sewer and traffic engineering division, continue to work in the field in areas considered essential, said Jen Winter, public works director.
Many of the remaining jobs have been able to transition to remote working.
“We had to figure out how to transition our office staff back home, which a lot of people around the country are doing,” Winter said. “And, then how do you transition our operational staff to different ways of working, so we are able to continue to provide the essential services and do that as safely as we can.”
Other city departments, such as public safety and utilities, also perform essential functions in settings that otherwise may have been shut down.
Out of 240 utilities department employees, approximately 80 percent are working on site at the water or wastewater plants or in the field collecting garbage and recycling or servicing meters, 10 percent are working from home, and 8 percent are on leave due to lack of work or the position is currently unfilled, according to city officials.
For those in the field it is not work as usual.
In the streets division, they have made a number of changes.
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“Our staff feels fortunate to be able to provide essential services and really keeping projects moving,” said Mike Duffy, street operations manager.
Workers now drive separately to sites and crews are split into three shifts to limit interactions. This means fewer people in the service building at one time, and if an outbreak occurs it could ideally be contained to one shift, while other shifts could continue operations.
Projects are being broken into smaller phases, so if work needs to pivot or stop, a street won’t be partially torn up for an extended period of time, for example.
The new approach has also ramped up some smaller jobs, such as crack sealing, filling potholes, curb replacement, and installing accessible street ramps and transit bus pads, Duffy said.
“They are out there still doing their job and doing it better than ever in my mind,” said Scott Olson, a City Council member and chairman of the city’s infrastructure committee.
Having fewer people spread out on more individual jobs could make them take longer, but overall an equal amount of work is getting done, Duffy said.
“We are focused on not biting off more than we can chew,” Duffy said. “Ultimately, I think we will do same amount of work (this year).”
Public works has been integral to emergency response over the years, but this is different. They are not working hand-in-hand filling sandbags and building walls during floods.
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“Our guys are used to being hands on and really being a part of the solution,” Duffy said. “The work now is really to stay away from each other, spread out and work in a safe way.”
One byproduct of so many people at home is less traffic but more of an audience.
“There’s a lot more people out watching, especially little kids,” Reicks said. “They like to watch the backhoes and dump trucks and big machines. Most of the kids seem happy to watch.”
It also means a greater focus on modeling safety, which is a good thing, he said.
“There is a lot of adapting,” Reicks said, noting the latest emphasis has been protective masks. “There’s new rules daily. When it first started, it was ‘bam,’ thrown in your face. ‘What is going on?’ Now, it’s just expected. What are the new rules today? What are we supposed to be doing different today?”
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