by | May 1, 2020

Co-ops keep the power flowing during the pandemic

On a sunny day in Sikeston SEMO Electric’s Angie Byford leads a Cooperative Moment of Prayer. In Troy the dinner table has been turned into a home office for Cuivre River Electric employee Gabe Twellman and his family. Across the state Boone Electric field engineer Jake Collins uses a 5-gallon bucket as a desk while working remotely.

Business as usual turned into “business as unusual” for Missouri’s electric cooperatives grappling with the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new normal during more than a month under a statewide stay-at-home order required careful planning, new ideas and lots of patience.

Co-op lobbies were closed to protect the health of employees, who practiced social distancing or worked from home, and the public. Annual meetings were postponed, beginning with Consolidated Electric where members were scheduled to meet just as the virus took off. Post-coronavirus annual meetings will look a lot different, with some held virtually and others with drive-thru elections.

Ultimately the state’s electric co-ops kept the power fl owing for thou-sands of members dealing with their own problems. They also sought to bring help and hope to those in need.

That was the case at SEMO Electric which invited cooperatives around the nation to join them in prayer. “The original idea was to pray over our cooperative’s team and offi c-es,” says Angie, SEMO’s supervisor of member relations. “However, we felt it in our hearts to invite all friends and cooperatives to join us.”

The prayer service asked for divine intervention to end the crisis, along with guidance for leaders making diffi cult decisions and the safety of medical professionals caring for those sick with the virus. It was one of a host of good deeds practiced around the state as electric cooperatives tried to make the most of a bad situation.

Left: Webster Electric’s Macy Mackey, left, and Tara Hunget sport masks made by the wife of lineman Richard Rust for those working the cooperative’s drive-thru. Center: Boone Electric’s Jake Collins uses a 5-gallon bucket for a desk while working remotely. Right: Kyla Yohe was over-whelmed by the demand for her masks for health care workers until other Osage Valley Electric employees helped out.

In Butler, one Osage Valley Electric employee, Kyla Yohe, began making masks for health care workers. “She quickly became overwhelmed with orders,” says Jana Rosier, mem-ber services director for the co-op. “Several employees brought sewing machines to work and we started our own assembly line and filled all of her orders in a few days.”

Webster Electric employees work-ing the co-op’s drive-thru are staying safe thanks to the efforts of Belinda Rust, wife of Webster Electric line-man Richard Rust. She crafted cloth masks so the employees could continue working with members.

At least two churches were able to continue services thanks to the support from electric co-op internet companies. In Hannibal, Cornerstone Baptist Church pastor Jason Hargraves accidentally cut his connection to the RallsTech internet service from Ralls County Electric. Three adults counted on the connection in order to work at home. Worse, Easter was two days away and the fiber connection allowed the faithful to worship remotely.

“RallsTech told us that everyone is done for the week, and we could get it fixed Monday,” Jason says. “Which was honestly sooner than I expected and I was grateful for that. But when they learned that we needed the repair in order to hold church, they quickly sent out a crew.”

Barry Electric’s goBEC internet service put a rush on a new installation to help Exeter’s First Baptist Church, which was trying to hold services via cell phone. “I watched their first online service and it was rough,” says Barry Electric’s Laura Holycross. “They had to keep moving around to get a signal.” The new goBEC connection made a big difference.

Internet connections proved vital to everyone from parents working at home to kids attending online classes. Co-Mo Connect, unable to send technicians into homes for repairs, came up with a plan to help one family with a member who tested positive for the virus. “For many companies, this would have been the end of the conversation,” says Co-Mo Manager Aaron Bradshaw. “Fortunately, Co-Mo Connect is not like many companies. A plan was already in place for this very contingency. Without exposing our team, we were able to help her through the setup, and she now has internet service again during a very tough time for her family.”

Callaway Electric sent crews out across its service area to install free Wi-Fi hotspots in eight communities. These allowed those without service to drive up and tap into high-speed internet through the cooperative’s Callabyte Technology.

At Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric, all subscribers to its internet service received free upgrades and new college students received two months of free service to further their education. “As the coronavirus continued to impact our community, we realized there was going to be an increase in demand for internet access,” says Manager Tim Davis. “We felt it is our responsibility to help where we can.”

Every electric co-op worked with members to ease the burden for those laid off. At United Electric that meant returning security deposits, waiving service availability charges and stop-ping disconnects and late fees.

Elsewhere, electric co-ops spread help and hope through donations. Farmers’ Electric Cooperative donated money to a local hospital’s COVID-19 Fund Drive. White River Valley Electric pledged $50,000 in matching funds to the Community Foundation of the Ozarks to help the most vulnerable citizens in its service area.

The story was the same around the state as electric co-ops went beyond keeping the lights on.
“We are their neighbors, we are local and our mission is to enhance the quality of life for the area we serve,” says Tim. “We strive to achieve that every day and as this virus spreads through our area, we will do what we can to help.”

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