Taking on COVID-19 in Phoenix

The city of Phoenix develops a new strategy to address the pandemic locally.

By Ginger Spencer

If you were to ask me at the beginning of 2020 what the Phoenix Public Works Department had planned for the new year, I would’ve said our department was focused on delivering the best services to our internal and external customers, while pursuing important partnerships in sustainability and building a circular economy.

Never would I have thought of including Plexiglas installations, hands-free light switch replacements, virus testing coordination, repairs to city buildings due to social protests, major increases to solid waste tonnage and extended work hours in 2020’s agenda.

Then March came and our nation, along with the rest of the world, was caught off guard by a virus that put a halt into people’s daily lives and the economy.

The Phoenix Public Works Department changed its agenda for 2020 and quickly developed a new strategy, focusing on emergency management and continuous service delivery to our customers.

As our state’s stay-at-home guidelines went into effect in late March, our staff began noticing an upward trend in trash and recycling tonnage. April, May and June saw an increase of about 20% in collected trash and recycling tonnage, compared to the tonnage during the same months in 2019. Our quarterly bulk trash service saw a 10- 15% increase, which equates to an additional 850 truckloads. This meant extended work hours for many of our solid waste equipment operators, supervisors and specialists to ensure that Phoenix neighborhoods remained clean, safe and sanitary.

Our Facilities Management Division added Plexiglas installations to its staff responsibilities. When the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) confirmed that the coronavirus is mainly spread through respiratory droplets, and social distancing was an effective way to prevent the spread, procuring Plexiglas material took precedence. Requests poured in from various departments to install Plexiglas barriers, and the team prioritized the requests by determining which locations are visited most frequently by customers and other employees.

As of July, the team (now fondly called the Plexiglas Crew) have completed 76 projects, requiring roughly 200 sheets of Plexiglas and measuring a total of 6,400 square feet of the raw material. Their projects can be seen in City Hall and other downtown Phoenix buildings, the city’s utilities payment center, and the Municipal Courts building, their largest project to date. The crew has also completed about 60% of the replacement of traditional light switches to hands-free ones in many common areas of our downtown buildings. Soon, they will tackle the installation of free-standing hand sanitizing stations in all city-owned facilities.

In late May, our city saw many people take to the streets to protest. Again, our Facilities Division went above and beyond to ensure that any damages to city buildings incurred by the unrest were cleaned up, secured and safe. After the first large protest, the team found themselves erasing graffiti, sweeping broken glass, and boarding up shattered windows and doors. Additionally, our Fleet Services Division worked extra hours to repair damaged public safety vehicles so our public safety personnel can be mobile and ready to serve.

The Phoenix Public Works Department changed its agenda for 2020 and quickly developed a new strategy, focusing on emergency management and continuous service delivery to our customers.

As Arizona’s Coronavirus infection rates went up in June, our mayor and city council were determined to make testing available to all. Our city’s leadership turned to our Public Works team to take the lead in coordinating several drive-thru COVID-19 testing events in different locations throughout the city, in partnership with local medical organizations. This was uncharted waters for us, but we welcomed the challenge to bring a much-needed service to thousands of Phoenicians. Our staff secured centrally located venues; rented tents, generators, tables and chairs for the medical staff; consulted with public safety to address traffic flows; and cross promoted the event to the public. To date, more than a dozen drive-thru testing events have been organized since late May, resulting in thousands of residents being tested for COVID-19, and more are planned for August.

To say these are “unprecedented times” may be an understatement. Phoenix Public Works employees undoubtedly demonstrated their diverse skillset, and dedication to their jobs and community. Many individuals from different industries have defined the true meaning of “essential workers,” and our Public Works employees are no exception. They, too, are the epitome of “essential workers.”

Our employees still deliver efficient trash and waste diversion services to 400K+ Phoenix households; manage and maintain services to 860+ city-owned or -leased facilities totaling 10 million square feet; as well as manage and maintain 7,000 vehicles of all sizes in the city’s fleet.

We will continue to research ways to improve our city’s waste diversion rate to 40% by the end of 2020. We will continue to foster relationships with other organizations, as part of our commitment to being good stewards of the environment.

Those will always be our core. However, we acknowledge that many aspects of the public works industry are changing, and our employees are now facing and adjusting to the “new norms.” But as the director of the city of Phoenix Public Works Department, one thing that will be unwavering is our dedication to public service.

Ginger Spencer is the director of the Phoenix Public Works Department, overseeing five divisions with 1,000 employees serving the 5th largest city in the U.S.

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