Like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on AEP, our employees, customers and communities. We are taking proactive and necessary measures to address the pandemic, keeping health and safety as our top priorities. We activated our emergency oversight structure and incident management teams in accordance with AEP’s Infectious Disease Response Plan.
Due to the critical nature of the services we provide, we have business continuity and emergency response plans in place to address all types of emergencies, including a pandemic. This allows our Enterprise Resilience team to take immediate action when an emergency arises. Our Enterprise Resilience team led an enterprise-wide, cross-functional team using Incident Command System (ICS) principles to guide response to and recovery from risk events associated with the coronavirus, mitigating impacts to our operations.
We created a COVID-19 Task Force to closely monitor the virus and regularly educate and communicate with our employees, partners and customers about the impacts and threats it posed. We collaborated with our peer companies, government experts and public health agencies to adjust our response as the situation rapidly evolved. In addition, each operating company and business unit established an Incident Management Team (IMT). The IMTs are headed by Incident Commanders who make decisions supported by staff with expertise in operations, communications, safety and health, HR, logistics, finance, legal and other aspects of the business. The IMTs are responsible for managing the response and planning for business impacts related to their specific operating companies and business units. We have more than 300 employees directly involved in the coronavirus response effort, and many others who are supporting the work of the IMTs. Today, portions of our COVID-19 response structure remain in place to closely monitor this virus and its potential mutations that could affect our company.
- Protecting Our Employees
We have taken significant and numerous actions to keep our employees, customers and communities safe and healthy during the pandemic. Our critical front-line employees are working in smaller teams, practicing physical distancing, wearing face coverings, monitoring themselves for symptoms, and taking other preventive measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are educating our customers to maintain at least six feet of physical distance from our workers when they are in the field. This has been especially important as our employees responded to restore service following multiple hurricanes and storms across our service territory and beyond. Learn more about our storm restoration efforts and protection in the Safety & Health section.
The measures we have taken extend to our contractors and subcontractors. We require them to report all known positive cases of COVID-19 for those people that work at our worksites or facilities. This allows us to trace and notify those who may have been exposed to the virus and prevent the spread to others.
Employees who can work from home have been doing so since mid-March 2020. This accounts for 60% of our workforce. We continue to review our timeline for returning to the workplace based on the spread of the virus in our communities, recommendations from our company doctor, and guidance from the CDC. When we do return, it will be a gradual process that reinforces the protections already in place. Although we have not required our employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it is strongly encouraged. The vaccine is fully covered for employees enrolled in the AEP medical plan, and we are offering a $100 incentive to employees who get fully vaccinated.
We are leveraging an internal website to provide updates to our employees as the situation progresses. This includes recommendations on actions to prevent virus transmission, guidance for employees who may have contracted or come into contact with someone with COVID-19 and other information resources on topics such as the COVID-19 vaccine. Our Chairman, President and CEO, Nick Akins, communicated with employees through a series of video messages committing to ensuring employees have the proper support and resources needed during this unprecedented time.
Our COVID-19 Task Force and response is an ongoing effort to protect our employees and communities.
- Supporting Our Employees
We recognize this has been a challenging year for everyone. In many cases, employees became teachers and/or caregivers, juggling multiple roles in addition to their jobs. To give employees flexibility as they adapted, we developed a comprehensive set of pay and leave programs and support mechanisms that cover a wide range of situations, including:
- Expanded Medical Risk and Family Care Leave to include Paid Pandemic Leave, providing a sick pay “bank” for employees exposed to or impacted by COVID-19.
- Enhanced Paid Time Off for full-time employees unable to work from home, such as field employees needed to keep the lights on, or those who need time to address child or adult care challenges.
- Gave all employees accelerated access to half of their 2021 vacation hours, after exhausting their 2020 paid time off. Our goal was to protect and provide fair continuation of wages and benefits while limiting exposure risk to protect the health of employees and their families.
- Enhanced AEP’s Medical Plan and Retirement Savings 401(k) Plan for employees impacted by COVID-19. The AEP Medical Plan changes align with new federal requirements and provide temporary enhancements to employees and their families with flexible options, many with no cost, when seeking health care. AEP’s 401(k) changes provide hardship relief through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provides options for accessing funds from 401(k) accounts due to financial hardship related to the coronavirus
- Introduced a one-time financial incentive of $100 per employee for those who complete a full series of COVID-19 vaccinations.
- Raised awareness about our existing Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to support employees and their families. This includes:
- Telephonic support with a counselor for in-the-moment support or a work/life specialist who can assist in identifying resources to meet individual needs;
- In-office or online video counseling visits to manage stress, anxiety, and other issues;
- Ability to speak to a work/life specialist who can conduct a search for local resources for full-time, part-time and back-up child and eldercare;
- Telephonic financial consultations with a certified financial professional who can discuss short and longer term financial concerns;
- Legal consultations with an attorney for a no-cost consultation to discuss legal questions; and,
- A virtual “health club for your mind” to gain access to tools to help manage stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia and more.
- Held two live “conversation with a counselor” sessions – one navigating feelings during the pandemic and another focused on parenting during the pandemic.
- Frequently communicated our EAP services specific to COVID-19 and more broadly touched on suicide awareness and resiliency.
- Equipping Our Employees with Tools & Resources
We actively focused on providing our employees with the necessary tools and resources to be productive and engaged during this time. This required us to be agile, adaptive and creative in identifying solutions that supported both our remote employees and field personnel. We had to rethink everything from onboarding and training to implementing new ways of working while identifying technology solutions to smooth the transition to a distributed work environment.
Our agility was demonstrated when we created remote Distribution Dispatch Centers (DDC) in an effort to implement additional safety precautions. The DDC serves as the conduit between our equipment performance and maintenance and our field workers. A common and essential task performed by the DDC dispatchers includes switching. Switching is the process used to isolate equipment so that work such as maintenance, replacement or construction can be performed safely and with minimal interruption to service. Errors in switching can result in hazardous conditions for employees, damage to equipment or interruption of service to customers. To provide a safe and productive work environment for our employees with minimal to no disruption to our dispatchers and the AEP system, we installed network connections and supporting infrastructure to enable a secure and functional second DDC location. This allowed our high-risk dispatchers to work from home, giving them the tools and resources needed to continue to work effectively.
In early 2020, we briefly paused all in-person training offerings to identify new training priorities, safety protocols, and tools and resources to adapt the training environment to being remote. To support required and critical pre-employment training activities, we established safety protocols for in-person training and pivoted to technology-based learning.
- In-Person/Classroom Learning: We established protocols to ensure the safety and health of employees and trainers. This included smaller class sizes, adding more sessions, expanding time between sessions where trainers have to travel and staggered settings.
- Blended or Virtual Learning: We streamlined content, session sizes and delivery style to effectively convey learning topics using WebEx or other virtual tools. We are also using AR/VR as a training delivery approach. For example, employees who need to know how to use a fire extinguisher can now get the training virtually thanks to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology. This is a great way to replace traditional hands-on learning in a safe and fun environment.
Despite many challenges, our employees have shown that they are resilient, flexible and adaptable. Our ongoing focus and commitment to a culture of engagement has allowed us to successfully navigate a challenging year while continuing to deliver value to our customers, shareholders and the communities where we operate. Our strong culture foundation will serve as a catalyst to accelerate our movement forward.
- Future of Work
As COVID-19 accelerated the move to remote work, it also created new ways of looking at how and where we perform our work. This includes everything from how we attract talent, employee development and culture, to the important role technology plays.
Our Future of Work initiative, which was underway before the pandemic began, is exploring whether work needs to be conducted onsite or if it can be effectively done remotely. The pandemic showed us that we can effectively work remotely. As we leverage this to shape the future workplace, we are classifying the different roles into remote (non-AEP location), hybrid (mixture of working at an AEP location or remote location), or onsite and field job classification. We are identifying tools, technology, training, and policies needed to support our new work classifications; redesigning workspaces to be more suitable for collaboration; and, recognizing the cultural needs of our workforce to define a path forward in an increasingly distributed way of working. We have made significant progress in developing an engaged, healthy culture and do not want to lose momentum.
We have already learned a lot about what is possible through this pandemic and we continue to learn more every day. Read more about our Future of Work effort in the Workforce section.
- Supporting Our Customers & Communities
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on our customers and communities. In response, we suspended all service disconnections for non-payment and waived credit card fees. In addition, we created a team to help small business customers apply for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, through which we supported more than 2,300 companies in securing funds.
As our states started reopening and businesses and economies began to rebound, we planned for our own return to normal business operations. In many states, disconnection suspensions have or will be expiring and we are resuming disconnection of customers for nonpayment. While difficult, this is important because it prevents cost shifting to other customers who may be just as or more vulnerable.
Our ability to maintain safe, reliable power relies on customers paying their bills. We continue working with our state regulators to offer creative solutions that help customers manage their energy use as well as pay their bills. This includes providing flexible payment options to help them maintain electric service without building up large past-due balances that they would have to pay all at once. We have been communicating with customers facing disconnection using different methods, including e-mail, letters, texts, voice mail messages, social media and door hangers, encouraging them to contact us if they need help paying their bills. Previous standards for payment plan arrangements and extensions have been adjusted so more customers can get the help they need. Disconnecting customers is always our last resort, and customers who work with us on a payment plan will not be disconnected.
In addition, the American Electric Power Foundation has donated nearly $4 million in COVID-related emergency relief funds to support basic human needs and help address the hardships faced by customers and communities. Grants have been made to nonprofit organizations across the AEP service area. We also donated personal protective equipment (PPE) to support front-line health care providers in the states we serve.
- Supply Chain Preparedness & Resilience
The global pandemic brought to light supply chain risks and insecurities in nearly every industry. Temporary trade restrictions, manufacturing shut downs and shortages of critical supplies reinforced the importance of supply chain preparedness and resilience. We experienced minimal supply issues due to the pandemic or the many storms we experienced on our system. Foundationally, this has been due to good planning, coordination and communication between our operational groups and supply chain partners on the front lines.
Early in the pandemic, we began to see lead times for deliveries of many high volume materials start to lengthen. We took proactive measures to increase inventory levels of many critical operational items to ensure we had adequate supplies. In addition, over the past several years, our business units have made a significant effort to evaluate and purchase capitalized spare parts for major critical pieces of equipment. To minimize exposure to the virus and disruption to our operations, our Emergency Preparedness team worked with our operations and supply chain teams to adapt our major event material management practices to maintain safety.
AEP was an early adopter of an inventory management system that uses data analytics to determine minimum and maximum material inventory levels. The system uses five years of data including: historical usage rates, material criticality, material lead times, available materials that could be substituted, and where/how long it would take to transfer stored inventory within the system, to predict the best inventory levels to be maintained. Our use of this system helped us weather the pandemic with minimal disruption and impact.
We invest billions in capital improvements to our business annually. Many of these large projects are in progress and the materials for them have already been secured. This provides an emergency source of materials if needed during the crisis. If or when we use these materials, we will replenish them to prevent interrupting project schedules. This gives our procurement activities added flexibility to meet daily business needs.