Co-op values conquer COVID-19

Minnkota’s member cooperatives used their resources and ingenuity to safely and effectively serve their communities through the pandemic.


Kaylee Cusack


June 8, 2020

With COVID-19 case counts growing and CDC guidelines tightening, March 20 was a difficult day for Wild Rice Electric Cooperative’s Tommy Houdek. The director of member services and communications remembers the flyer taped to the front door of the Mahnomen, Minn., office: “Our Lobby is Currently Closed.”

“I’ll be honest, that part was tough,” Houdek recalled. “Just having to go put that sign up – it was a hard pill to swallow. I thought, wow, is this really happening?”

Face-to-face service is how the region’s rural electric cooperatives have fortified their strong member connections since the start of the cooperative model more than 80 years ago. When the coronavirus pandemic struck and physical distancing became the new normal, Minnkota’s member cooperatives didn’t slow down. They jumpstarted solutions, reimagined their processes and stepped up to serve their communities.

“We are keeping business going remotely and keeping options open for our members in a number of different ways,” Houdek said. “Many people have been affected by this, so we want to try and be there for them and help them in any way we’re able.”

Pandemic pivots

COVID-19 fears arose during a season of celebration for many cooperatives, with annual meetings, spring service projects and summer tours just over the horizon.

“Postponement of our annual meeting was the first hard decision to make,” said Kelli Brateng, Red Lake Electric Cooperative member services manager. “After that, the management staff decided to completely close the doors and have many employees work at home.”

Several other cooperatives indefinitely postponed their annual meetings, closed their lobbies and sent most office staff home to carry out duties from their spare bedrooms, kitchen tables and even garages.

COVID-19 guidelines forced many co-op employees to leave the office and set up an at-home workstation. Wild Rice’s Tommy Houdek utilized garage space for his home workspace. (Submitted photo)

“We have definitely become more flexible in terms of what can be done remotely, especially from the office and administrative perspective,” said Robyn Sonstegard, finance manager for North Star Electric Cooperative. “Things we would have not thought of or tried to do remotely are now being done that way. It should give us a different perspective going forward, after COVID-19.”

Cooperative changes focused on going digital. This included collaborating differently with co-workers using phone conferencing and video meetings, but extended to communicating with consumers. Members were encouraged in newsletters, on co-op websites and through social media to utilize online payment options for their electric bill.

“Some people are also noticing tools that they didn’t know that we had, or were uncertain of the benefits, such as our Wild Rice Co-op app, where you can monitor your usage, pay your bills and things like that,” Houdek explained. “It’s definitely a win-win for us and the member in that regard.”

Social media also proved to be helpful during the crisis. Co-ops with a strong Facebook follower base communicated closings and postponements in the early stages. From there, the power of the platform expanded.

“With the stay-at-home order, this has been a great tool to engage with members and our community about safety and energy efficiency information and tips, along with updates to our COVID-19 response plan,” said Angela Lyseng, Beltrami Electric Cooperative marketing and communications specialist.

Minnkota’s member cooperatives used social media to share COVID-19 information, resources and stories during the height of the crisis.

Not every member has the ability – or desire – to connect with their co-op online, so some offices found even more solutions to serve everyone while physically distancing.

“We are putting in an intercom system that is going to be mounted on the outside of our main door entrance,” explained Clearwater-Polk Electric Cooperative’s Deanna Lefebvre. “We have also communicated the different ways members can pay their bill and have put up a large sign to identify where our drop box is.”

Clearwater-Polk Electric Cooperative installed additional drop box signage for members who were used to paying their bills in the office. (Submitted photo)

Linework must go on

The functionality of an electric cooperative comes down to the ability of the field crews to do their job. Staying 6 feet from fellow lineworkers makes maintaining and repairing power systems more difficult, but every co-op found its own way to keep power flowing reliably while maintaining social distance.

As with many providers, PKM Electric Cooperative line crews worked on shift rotation, with half of the crew alternating every other day. They eventually moved to full shifts with staggered start and stop times. “During the rotation schedule, each lineworker had their own vehicle. When the shift ended each day, the truck was thoroughly cleaned, providing a safe environment for the next occupant,” said PKM’s Chelsy Davey.

“This is one of those times where it is a plus that we are a small co-op,” added Clearwater-Polk’s Lefebvre. “We have only eight linemen and with that many, we have enough co-op vehicles so each of them can drive separately.”

Other co-ops noted that their teams would focus on projects that could be completed while distancing, such as certain Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) updates and line inspections. However, outage restoration remained priority No. 1, especially in light of a spring ice and wind system that swept through the region in early April.

When an ice storm hit Red Lake Electric’s territory during the pandemic, crews didn’t slow down – they simply maintained social distancing guidelines. (Submitted photo)

Concern for community

Minnkota’s member co-ops discovered ways to go above and beyond standard member service in the face of crisis. Cass County Electric Cooperative donated a collective total of more than 1,000 N-95 masks to Essentia Health and Sanford Health. When its members offered more suggestions, the cooperative delivered more masks to the Fargo VA Health Care System, CHI Mercy Health of Valley City and the Fargo Police Department.

“We are a community-focused organization focused on delivering affordable, reliable and safe energy to our consumer-members. But for us, it's more than that,” said Cass County president and CEO Marshal Albright. “We are a part of this community, so if we have resources that can help in this time of need, we are glad to help."

Cass County Electric Cooperative president and CEO Marshal Albright drops off hundreds of N-95 masks for Essentia Health. (Submitted photo)

Other co-ops helped in other ways, sharing resources for the Energy Assistance Program with those who struggled to pay bills, or helping small businesses navigate the state and federal resources available to keep them afloat during trying times.

Co-op assistance even spread to students who had transitioned to home learning. Distance wouldn’t stop PKM and Wild Rice from their annual classroom electric safety presentations – they simply delivered them via video conferencing.

Wild Rice Electric's Tommy Houdek (top) and PKM Electric line foreman Scott Slusar (bottom) were two of many cooperative innovators who used video conferencing to teach classrooms about electrical safety. (Submitted photos)

Electric cooperatives across the country have had to overcome a great deal throughout the COVID-19 challenge. But they’ve learned, they’ve adjusted, they’ve gone the extra mile and they’ve prepared for the future.

Nodak Electric Cooperative’s Blaine Rekken, energy/member services manager, says the past weeks have been a great test for business continuity. “This is giving us good experience for updating our recovery plans in response to pandemics,” he said. “Our plans and routine tabletop exercises are just best guesses until we run through an actual real-life event such as this.”

Rekken, Houdek and countless other member service leaders in Minnesota and North Dakota realize that sometimes it takes unprecedented times to reveal unprecedented resilience.

“For a while there, things were changing by the minute,” Houdek recalled. “But our employees have done a fantastic job serving our members while adapting to this change.”

Main image: A lobby closure sign hangs in the window of Wild Rice Electric Cooperative, as cooperatives around the region joined the fight to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (Submitted photo)


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