CPS Energy has allowed more than a third of its staff to work from home, and many of those who stay on the job must either pass screenings or undergo a two-week quarantine, according to utility officials

Around 1,200 of the 3,100 employees of the electric and gas utility are working remotely, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said at the utility’s March meeting Monday. With the coronavirus spreading in San Antonio, officials held a remote board meeting for the first time in the utility’s 77 years of City ownership.

Utilities are two of the industries named as “essential businesses” exempt from the City and County orders requiring residents to stay home to stop the virus from spreading quickly enough to overwhelm the local health system.

In the past week and a half, CPS Energy has significantly ramped up the number of staff working remotely. Ten days ago, only around 450 CPS Energy employees were working from home. At that time, the San Antonio Water System, the City’s other municipally owned utility, had required 450 of its staff of 1,700 to work remotely.

Currently, CPS Energy employees who work in “industrial-like settings” are undergoing two rounds of screenings – one a set of questions by phone, the other a temperature check – to determine if they’re fit to work or if they should self-quarantine, Gold-Williams said.

Gold-Williams told board members that slowing the virus’s spread is now “the primary focus of the organization and all the things that have to happen to support that, while we keep operating as a company.”

“Everything is still functioning and functioning well, but we do have to think very differently how we accomplish things in light of things like social distancing,” she said.

Without more widespread testing, it’s unclear how fast the virus is spreading in San Antonio, where local officials remain unsure how many people have been tested by public and private laboratories. So far, health officials have confirmed 168 cases and six deaths as of late Monday.

Local shutdowns meant to slow the virus’s spread have led to reduced electricity demand from businesses and industrial customers, Gold-Williams said. But that’s been offset by an increase in demand from people isolating at home. CPS Energy has had no problems producing enough power for San Antonio, even selling some excess capacity onto the Texas power grid, she said.

However, San Antonio’s sometimes violent spring could put a strain on the utility, she said.

“We have been lucky, we have not had any major issues around storms, but we are entering storm season and we are preparing for that,” Gold-Williams said.

Also at the meeting, board members approved a resolution giving the utility’s staff the power to negotiate final agreements to sell its biggest downtown properties. These are its headquarters at 145 Navarro St., the garage and office space across Navarro Street from the main headquarters, a half share in the Tower Life garage adjoining the main headquarters, and a parking lot on Navarro and Villita streets surrounding the Mexican Consulate.

The Rivard Report has repeatedly asked the utility to disclose bidders interested in buying the properties. CPS Energy officials say they won’t disclose them until the sales are final.

Most of the meeting focused on how CPS Energy is coping with coronavirus. CPS Energy leaders have separated their employees into those who need to work at sites that requires more physical labor and those who primarily work in an office. They’ve even color-coded them based on the utility’s logo.

“Blue team” includes about 1,600 employees who work out of service centers, power plants, and other industrial sites, Gold-Williams said. It also includes the members of its leadership team.

“We put ourselves in their category and think about things through their eyes,” Gold-Williams said.

All blue team members are those undergoing the two-phase screening process, Gold-Williams said. The first part starts with an order to stay at home for one work day, when they’ll get a a phone call from a CPS Energy staffer who asks a list of questions.

“Have they been in contact with large groups? Have they traveled, even by car, outside of our service territory?” Gold-Williams said. “We determine which people need to be cleared to be able to come back to work as promptly as possible, or those that need to be self-quarantined until we can get more clarity about where they are in following the COVID-19 provisions of social distancing.”

The utility has for weeks required at least some of its employees to self-quarantine, particularly those with recent travel history to affected areas. Those who are in quarantine are placed on leave so they don’t have to deplete their sick leave or vacation time, utility officials have said.

Those who work in office settings are separated into a 300-person “white team” of what Gold-Williams deemed “office-essential personnel.” It includes people who need to be onsite from time to time, CPS Energy spokesman Seamus Nelson said in an email.

“Some of their work can be done from home, but some requires being physically at work,” Nelson said. “We are having these people rotate to maximize the social distancing opportunities.”

The remaining 1,200 staff are part of the “orange team,” most of whose members can work from home to limit the chances of spreading coronavirus at work, Nelson said.

“Their focus is to make sure that everything in the back office is taken care of, so the blue team in particular can get their work done,” Gold-Williams said.

Disclosure: CPS Energy is a Rivard Report business member. For a full list of supporters, click here.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.