Essential Workers: Street/Highway DepartmentApril 30, 2020
By JONATHAN SAXON
JASPER — If you wake up early enough, you can still hear the rumbling of the garbage truck as it makes its way down the block. More than a cleanup signal, that’s the sound of the Jasper Street Department, which has kept working with little disturbance to its routine post-COVID-19.
The department’s environment is a stark contrast from most jobs that have undergone significant changes in recent months.
“We just take it a day at a time,” said Scott Eckerle, Jasper’s assistant street commissioner. “We do the social distancing, and we make changes as they tell us to.”
So far, those changes for workers have amounted to increased use of protective masks, staggering breaks and giving each other elbow room when possible.
Eckerle, who is in charge of the work crews and their assignments, also said he’s had to adjust some of the trash truck routes because of cuts to worker hours. But COVID-19 has not had a severe impact on the functions of the street department. In fact, it seems to have made some portions of the job easier for some of the maintenance crews.
“It’s actually safer,” Eckerle said. “The less traffic we have, the nicer it is. On Newton Street, those guys have noticed a lot of slower vehicles and less traffic going through, which makes it easier to do your job.”
Eckerle said Mayor Dean Vonderheide has briefings with the department heads every afternoon to discuss any safety changes that need to be made, but he credits the attentiveness of the workers with keeping street department operations running smoothly.
“Our employees are very self-conscious of what we do and how we do our jobs,” Eckerle said. “We’ve been buying [sanitizer] in bulk, so I know they’re using that quite a bit. Guys are just being vigilant on what they’re doing.”
It’s a different story at the Dubois County Highway Department. County Highway Supervisor Steve Berg has cut back on the size of the work crews in the wake of the pandemic to keep his workers safe and minimize the spread of the coronavirus.
“Normally, our road crews consist of about five or six people,” said Berg, who has a lot of his guys on call for emergencies instead of their more routine schedules. “What we’re trying to do now is anything that can be done without multiple people in a vehicle, which doesn’t allow for a whole lot. The mowers are going. I’ve got somebody that’s working on road signs by himself.”
Culvert replacements are the major project the highway department isn’t currently working on, though they’ve been using patching procedures to work around that. Other functions like road paving, painting traffic lines and brush removal have also slowed down because of crew reductions. Berg also anticipates the decrease in statewide traffic as a result of the pandemic will lead to less revenue for the highway department.
“There’s things through this that’s going to impact a lot of people in a lot of ways,” he said.
Berg is doing what he can to work with the resources he has available. He acknowledged that some of the work will fall behind schedule if it’s not an issue that warrants an immediate response. But his major concern is being careful with the health and safety of his workers. He’ll do what he can with what’s available in the meantime.
“We’re working with less people, but trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” Berg said. “This is a new situation nobody has dealt with before. To let up and try to bring people back too early would be a big mistake.”
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