GUILDERLAND — There are nonessential workers working from home and essential employees still commuting every day. Then there are a handful of people who’ve moved into their workplace and shut out the rest of the world.
Thirteen National Grid employees have been sequestered in the utility’s Eastern Regional Control Center in Guilderland for two and a half weeks, separated from everyone else so as to not get caught up in the coronavirus pandemic.
The ERCC controls the flow of electricity to 520,000 homes and businesses from Hudson to Ticonderoga and from Little Falls to the Massachusetts border. The people inside are among the most essential of essential workers.
“I’m living on an air mattress in my office but we did bring in some trailers for the sequestered staff to live in,” said Ray Joyce, director of the ERCC.
The 30-year National Grid employee has been through some severe tests in his two decades at the ERCC, including Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the Great Northeast Blackout of 2003 and too many ice and wind storms to count. Nothing comes close to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a lot of anxiety out there right now,” Joyce said. “People are stressed right now and the last thing we need is an extended outage. We’re just trying to make it as normal as possible during these unprecedented times.”
“I’m mainly 69,000 volts or less,” said Sara Pettit, one of the people sequestered on site.
Very few people can write that in their resume, but it’s a distinction worth making: She’s not controlling the heavy transmission lines stretching miles across the landscape, she’s closer to the street level, where the electricity is actually being used.
If a truck knocks down a pole, or lightning blows a transformer, or if utility workers just need to safely perform some maintenance, Pettit can remotely cut off power to a particular substation or even a specific stretch of a single street.
“If something needs to be repaired we can’t just turn everybody’s lights out,” she said.
Pettit’s job title at National Grid is “Regional Operator” but in other settings, she’s known as “Mom.”
Her 14-month-old son, Chase Pettit, is home with her husband in Bleecker, while she monitors the grid.
“Today is Day 16, so it’s 17 days since I’ve held him,” she said Tuesday. “Honestly, I really, really miss my family.”
That afternoon, she watched on her smartphone 40 miles away as the toddler ate with a fork for the first time, a feat he’d been working on for weeks.
Chase is old enough to recognize and interact with Mom on the phone screen.
“He lights up like a little Christmas tree,” Pettit said. “He’s always trying to grab the phone.”
Pettit came to the ERCC nearly three years ago after working as a substation maintenance mechanic.
Last month, as the pandemic worsened, she readily volunteered to sequester, appreciating the importance of her work. But the company will continue the sequester indefinitely, until the threat from the pandemic eases, and that’s an open-ended commitment she’s begun to rethink.
After discussions with her husband and Joyce, she’s decided to cap her time away from home at 35 days.
“I have a tentative leave date in the end of April,” she said. After some time at home, she’d be willing to return to sequester if needed.
Joyce lives a lot closer to the ERCC than Pettit — just a few miles away in Albany. But he can’t go home any more than she can.
Joyce recently posted a video of his 9-year-old daughter playing a violin piece for him 25 feet away, across the ERCC lawn.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Thank God for Facetime and phone calls.”
Ray Joyce, left, director of National Grid’s Eastern Regional Control Center, confers with Regional Operator Chris White.
National Grid has about 200 critical employees sequestered systemwide, including at its five control centers: Massachusetts, Rhode Island and western, central and eastern New York.
They work 12-hour shifts and live on-site. In Guilderland, the company brought in trailers for them to sleep in and fitted out some empty space as a gym. There’s a washer and dryer on-site for the first time, and meal deliveries three times a day with a careful sanitary protocol for the deliveryman to follow.
Touch points are swabbed down with disinfectant every two hours and all 13 people on site get their temperature taken twice a day.
A few of the 1,200 National Grid employees in the 13-county Eastern Region have taken ill with COVID-19, but others are filling in for them while they recover. No one sequestered in the critical positions has gotten sick, which was the point in sequestering.
“National Grid was one of the first utilities in the country to sequester,” Joyce said.
When the ERCC went on lockout, it was a bit like a Navy submarine dipping below the surface: The people inside were off on their own, no direct contact with anyone but their crewmates.
“That’s the exactly the analogy we used,” Joyce said, “It’s like being in a submarine once we closed the hatch and cast off.”
Because they live in the Eastern Region, the workers sequestered in Guilderland are serving not just National Grid’s customers but taking care of their friends and neighbors. It’s an open-ended commitment, as Joyce and the crew don’t know any more than the rest of us how long the pandemic will remain a threat.
“We signed up really not knowing how long it’s going be,” Joyce said.
One nice break: So far there hasn’t been a crisis above and beyond the pandemic. No storms, no ice jam floods, no power plants going offline. The last significant weather event was on Feb. 8.
“We geared up for this,” Joyce said, referring to his colleagues beyond the dozen sequestered with him. “We can handle a storm — we have a few extra bodies if needed. Our pandemic plan called for that and we met it.”