| Staff shortages, clogged supply chains among latest water sector pandemic challenges
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Staff shortages, clogged supply chains among latest water sector pandemic challenges

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.

AWWA Survey Utilities struggle to hireForty 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, 21% of the utility respondents indicated their employee turnover rate has nearly doubled to 21%, compared to 11% earlier in 2021. Illnesses and quarantining have impacted field and water treatment operations in about 30% of surveyed utilities.

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

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

Kinks in supply chain

AWWA Survey Utilities short on pipesSeventy-two percent of responding utilities reported difficulty obtaining pipes or other infrastructure components. Utilities also reported supply chain issues with vehicles (48% of respondents), electronic equipment (46%) and chemicals (45%), most commonly chlorine gas and sodium hypochlorite. 

In a June 2020 survey, just 4% of responding utilities reported chemical supply issues. In the latest survey, 26% of respondents anticipate supply issues will continue into 2022.
More positively, concern about the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) has dropped, with 11% of utilities indicating a current supply issue compared to a high of 56% in April 2020.

Efforts to help customers through pandemic

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% and 80% of utilities, respectively, enacting these policies. Of the utility respondents in the latest survey, about 63% had re-instituted shutoffs and late fees. 

AWWA Survey strong enrollment in customer assistance programsIn addition, 34% of utility respondents said their customers had access to some type of Customer Assistance Program (CAP) prior to the pandemic and another 38% said they established a program during the pandemic to assist customers with bill payments. 

Just over a third of utilities with CAP programs report enrollment currently at peak levels and another quarter have only seen a slight decrease.

Of the utilities establishing new CAPs during the pandemic, 20% said they are still in place, 16% said theirs had expired and 2% said they will make these programs permanent.

Vaccine access, employee policies 

Just 10% of all survey respondents reported difficulty getting vaccination access and priority, a significant drop from 36% earlier in 2021. Fifty-nine percent reported that at least half of their employees are vaccinated, including 58% of utilities and 77% of service providers. 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% of very large organizations. Twenty-one percent of service provider respondents reported having a vaccine requirement. 

Office and remote work arrangements

Among utility survey respondents, 9% said they have implemented permanent hybrid working arrangements and 21% are considering them. Service providers were more likely to still have remote work policies in place and to be moving forward with hybrid remote/office work.

Of the utility respondents, 55% said workplace effectiveness was about the same during remote work, 32% said it decreased and 13% said it increased. Of the service provider respondents, 48% said remote work was equally effective, 26% said it decreased and 26% said it increased.

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