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“Our work is now at a standstill”: How COVID-19 is taking efficiency workers off the job

March 31, 2020
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At least 2.4 million Americans work in energy efficiency, from construction to manufacturing, wholesale trade to professional and business services. Some of these workers can stay on the job even during social distancing and lockdowns, including those able to work from home. Many cannot.

As of Monday, at least 19 states have halted all retrofits to low-income homes under the federal Weatherization Assistance Program. In the others, most of the local nonprofit agencies that implement the program have paused work, according to the National Association for State Community Services Programs.

The Building Performance Association, which represents 9,500 home and building performance contractors, says that virtually all residential energy efficiency work has been suspended by utilities, states, service providers, and small businesses.

When energy efficiency improvements in a home are delayed, a family keeps paying energy bills that are higher than necessary. And reductions in greenhouse gas emissions due to that home are also delayed.

But right now, the pandemic’s impact on energy efficiency is most severe and immediate for the workforce and businesses. We asked three veterans in the field how their work has been affected.

 

Don Watts 

Watts Working Group, LLC Cleveland, Ohio 

“My work is inspecting homes to identify energy efficiency fixes that cut people’s bills and make them more comfortable. Here in Cuyahoga County, several dozen contractors work through the federal weatherization program and our utility to inspect residences and install energy efficiency improvements. Together our trained workforce provides energy conservation services to 1500–1800 houses and residential buildings annually.

All of our work is now at a standstill due to COVID-19. The only exceptions are situations of no heat or other emergencies.

Ohio is under a stay-at-home order, which is expected to be extended indefinitely. I think we all understand why this needs to happen. We’re all in this together. As for me, I anticipate starting a temporary warehouse position with Amazon next week until getting back to my profession.

The primary purpose of our work is energy conservation, but there is an equally important mission of health and safety delivery as well. As inspectors, we’re checking for carbon monoxide, unsafe electrical systems, and other hazards. We have a whole-house approach to leave a home safe. Now, we’re leaving a vast vulnerable population even more vulnerable.”

 

Jill Motta 

President, Triple H Insulation, Heating & CoolingSt. James, NY

“Triple H is a woman-owned contracting business that specializes in making homes more comfortable and energy efficient. We’ve been operating on Long Island since 1999.

Before the governor’s mandate that all non-essential businesses keep their workforces home, we were thriving and had a two-month backlog of projects.

One day we were busy on the job and the next, our work came to a halt. I had to make the painful decision to furlough most of our staff. That meant 21 installers, crew leads, and project managers filing for unemployment benefits.

I kept a staff of five to continue our marketing efforts and to set sales appointments for when social distancing is a thing of the past. We have to be ready to get back in the field, because accounts receivables will dry up soon. 

I learned Friday that the Cares Act was passed and is offering loans to small businesses. I will apply and get the company through this. I’m hopeful for the future, especially if we can begin working again in a few weeks. If not, it will be a struggle. My family, employees, and I are healthy, and that’s the most important thing right now.”

 

David Hepinstall 

Executive Director, Association for Energy Affordability, Inc.Bronx, NY

“AEA provides energy efficiency services and workforce training, with an emphasis on multifamily affordable housing. More than 90% of our revenue is based on energy efficiency work completed and energy savings achieved in homes and residential buildings.

We’re a direct services and training provider under New York state’s Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), an implementer and subcontractor for utility efficiency programs, and an energy consultant for new and existing multifamily properties participating in NYSERDA programs or needing to comply with New York City mandates. We are also a network of 12 nonprofit WAP subgrantees in downstate New York.

During this public health crisis, our in-building work has stopped completely, sharply reducing our income. We strongly support the need to halt residential efficiency operations at this time. Our WAP service territory in the Bronx and Queens includes communities hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Our challenge is to retain our energy efficiency workers, some of whom are public housing residents, and the subcontractors we hire and manage. We cannot afford to lose our trained, qualified workers during this period. Our state has mounted an ambitious initiative to reduce carbon emissions. AEA must retain – even expand – its experienced workforce. We need support from public and private partners to do so while maintaining an effective social distancing strategy.”

AEA’s Weatherization Assistance Program crew in the organization’s heating training lab.

Have a story to tell about the pandemic’s impact on your efficiency job or company? Our friends at E4TheFuture have set up a page to share your experience with your legislators.

 

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