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In response to pandemic, city workers looked to better serve community

When COVID-19 hit, Charlottesville’s leadership quickly went indoors and online, but employees providing direct services to the public had to find new ways to work in person and face-to-face.

In the past two years, as cases waxed and waned with cold weather and new virus variants, some departments made numerous changes to their operations, including some that may prove permanent.

“It seemed to happen so quickly, and we pivoted so quickly, but our goal was always how we are going to do all this and maintain our services and our interactions with customers, sometimes in person?” said Lauren Hildebrand, the city’s director of utilities.

The nature of the department’s work was made problematic by the pandemic. Employees often entering homes to fix water and natural gas issues and, as the world locked down, creativity was required.

Hildebrand said that, while masks are now easily accessible, they were scarce at first. A personal protective equipment shortage in the early days challenged not only medical care providers but the department as well.

Employees found themselves having to prioritize calls for assistance.

“It was a challenge. We certainly had to be flexible and meet people’s needs, recognizing that we provide a service that’s 24/7 or on call 24/7,” Hildebrand said.

The most common interactions were natural gas workers lighting appliances in customers’ homes. Employees would ask families to isolate in one area of the house while they worked in another, or came into the house while residents weren’t home.

Calls complaining about the smell of gas were prioritized as a safety precaution. Employees donned face masks, face shields and gloves when on a call.

“I feel like we didn’t – I hope we didn’t – miss a beat, but we certainly made some adjustments in our operations to make sure people were safe and healthy,” Hildebrand said. “We didn’t want anybody to be interrupted. We didn’t want anybody to be put in an unsafe situation.”

For both the departments of Human Services and Social Services, adapting to new rules while continuing to serve required flexibility and creativity, especially as people’s needs increased during the pandemic.

“It was an immediate and a big shift when COVID happened, for our workforce and our clients. We kind of figured it out together,” said Sue Moffett, Director of Social Services.

Moffett said her staff stepped up to make sure community members’ needs were met, even if it meant doing different jobs and working differently. Employees partnered with others and looked at services from a different perspective.

“We had staff doing things that were really outside their traditional job descriptions. We had people helping to interpret at the emergency financial assistance line. We had people helping deliver food to people who were homebound because of COVID isolation or other reasons,” Moffett said.

“We were partnering with organizations that we had never really had the opportunity to partner with before, particularly migrant farmworkers and folks like that, just to make sure that we had a handle on what the need was, what services were available and what else we needed to look to fill any gaps,” Moffett said.

Misty Graves, interim director of the city’s Department of Human Services, said the department created similar partnerships and staff took new, creative approaches to problems.

Graves’ staff took food donations to food hubs for distribution and partnered with the Blue Ridge Health District to help quarantined people receive services and food. One particularly vital partnership was with Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Equity Initiative.

“They created, in the middle of a pandemic, a food text program where anyone can type in their zip code and what day it is and get real time information as far as where food is. That should never stop,” Graves said. “It was incredibly inventive and responsive to the need, but I hope that program continues because it is showing real collaboration and efficiency and making sure that folks know where to get what they need.”

Moffett said that Social Services tried to have as many socially distanced in-person interactions with clients as possible to maintain the personal level of services, but also offered electronic options when possible.

“We met in parks. We bought camp chairs for staff and met on people’s front porches. It was a great opportunity for everybody to be creative and to remain focused on our mission,” Moffett said.

Department leaders agree the pandemic taught them better ways to serve and to serve better.

“One thing about human service work is that we’re not making widgets. Relationships are important, and not only relationships with the people that we serve, but relationships with other community partners and service providers in the area,” Moffett said.

She and Graves said those partnerships will continue.

“It takes a pretty high risk tolerance to be innovative and to take on a bunch of new programs and new ways of working in a really quick, quick timeframe,” Moffett said. “It requires that we trust each other a lot and that we are vigilant about what we’re not doing well.”

Moffett said the changes taught department to look for what they were missing in serving the community.

“What do we need to tweak so that we don’t perpetuate something that isn’t working well for the people that we serve?” she said. “Those new partnerships are really important because we get feedback from lenses that I’m not used to hearing from. It’s great,” Moffett said.

“What we do in the utility world is kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind; and we take it for granted it’s always gonna work, until it doesn’t,” Hildebrand said. “You know, they’re not thinking about what makes it work behind the scenes and all the people that keep it working.”


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