A2 COVID-19: Brian Steglitz

May 16, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Brian Steglitz is the manager of Water Treatment Services in the city of Ann Arbor. He has worked for the city for 22 years – first as an engineer at the water treatment plant, and manager of the department since 2014. In our conversation, Brian talked about the pressure of his job, how the work of the Water Treatment Plant continues, following best practices to protect the health of staff as much as possible. Brian described his family’s habits of exercise and activity during this pandemic, the need to respect others’ views and perspectives under these circumstances.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 12, 2020

Today I’m talking to Brian Steglitz who is the manager at our water treatment services in the city of Ann Arbor. I want to thank you for talking to me!

You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

So I ask everybody the same questions – pretty general questions – and you can answer them however you like. What adjustments or changes have you had to make in your lifestyle due to this pandemic?

Well, I’m working from home like many folks are, primarily (I’ve been in a little bit), so that has been a big change. I have a wife and two teenage daughters so we’ve divided up the home into our little spaces. My daughters work in their bedrooms primarily during the day and my wife has been relegated to the basement and I have the kitchen so we’ve sort of worked out our little niches but it’s been, you know, it’s been definitely very different.

Now it seems like it’s been going on for so long, it’s sort of become routine. We sort of wake up, go to our spaces and reconvene at meals and so that’s sort of what my life is like.

The flipside is: working from home I can’t get away from my office. I feel like I’m working a lot. Pretty much, it’s just… I can’t get away.

It’s not separated anymore. It’s everywhere and all the time.

Yeah, and people you know pop in and messages come in. We’re a 24/7 operation so I’m addressing things around the clock to some degree. It’s been exhausting. I am very much looking forward to not working from home and going back to work and [I] can sort of separate the work/home life because it’s been taking a toll.

We’ve adjusted our work schedules to align… so people have made a lot of sacrifices. We’re trying to minimize employee to employee contact, so we’ve aligned staff, set them up in teams so they’re working with the same people. So if we do have illnesses that go through the plant, it only infects a team (potentially) and then we can bring in another team. So people are working in teams.

Operationally, they are working 12 hour shifts seven days in a row. So it’s a lot of work in a short period of time and then they’re off. They’re still getting their hours in but it’s in a more concentrated time. We have several people who have young kids, so they’re off on FMLA leave, so we have other people who are having to work more. Then there’s this sort of equity thing, where people are like “Well, they’re sitting home with their kids on paid leave and I have to come into work. That’s not fair.”

So, I mean, there’s some serious stress, I think, because of the situation that we have, that we’re working in. But this is best practice, this is what is happening in the industry. This is what we need to do to ensure that we can continue to deliver the services. It’s tough times, you know.

So I’ve asked everybody: what kind of precautions are you taking in the day-to-day activities that we can’t avoid? Things like getting groceries… things that we used to do so easily, going into public spaces but now we really are trying to avoid public spaces. So I’m curious what kind of routines do you have in your household?

We try to minimize trips so, you know, we’ll buy more groceries every time we go. We’re not going every few days but going more like once a week. It seems like – I don’t know if this was a conscious conversation or default but we’ve sort of settled on our stores. So my wife will go to Kroger, for example, and I end up going to Costco and we know when we need to go replenish our supplies and we sort of handle each of our own spaces. So [we’re] ust really trying to minimize the number of trips that we’re making.

Some people describe how uncomfortable it is to be cooped up so much. We lost so many external outlets, places we used to go, regular parts of our lives outside of our homes. What are your strategies for overcoming these feelings of being cooped up?

Oh, well, we do a walk almost every day so we get out of the house every day as a family (at least as much of the family as we can coerce), at least my wife and I, usually we can get one of the kids to come along with us. Rain shine cold no matter what it is we try to get outside and that I think just helps sort of decompress a little.

What else… we’re all pretty actively doing some type of online exercise. My girls are doing some – I don’t know what they’re calling it ab shredding? – Chloe Ting thing (I think it’s an “ing” thing). So they and their friends are doing it and they’re on some – I don’t know if it’s a two week or four week – program to, like, a six pack abs or something. So that’s what they’re doing. My wife and I… I’m doing a lot of Y classes. Online Y classes, to me, that is sort of my outlet. I was a runner so I need to get out and I need to do something. I’m still getting out and running on occasion but I’m doing a lot of classes, my wife’s doing classes so usually at some point throughout the day somebody is doing exercise in some room looking at a screen.

[We] try to do a little bit of family activities. We started doing it initially like puzzles and family game nights so we try to incorporate that into our routine as much as we can.

Do you take any special precautions when you’re going outdoors? You mentioned you go for walks and maybe you’re going for runs?

Yep, social distancing. [We] have not really been wearing masks when we’re going out but it seems like in our neighborhood (and the places we’ve been going) that people are sort of naturally separating. We’re walking down the sidewalk, we see people going the other way. By default, someone’s going in the street. so we’re doing that. We’re keeping our distance from folks and respecting their space. But wearing masks when we’re going into an indoor places (like grocery stores) for sure, but not just when we’re walking around outside (we haven’t been).

I agree with you that what I witness in my neighborhood is people being very cautious when they’re outdoors and respecting this distance, adjusting to each other. I feel like in Ann Arbor we’re taking this quarantine very seriously, but we are seeing other places where people are sort of pushing back against it. You know, we’ve seen a couple of demonstrations in Lansing against these restrictions and arguing that they are overly restrictive. Would you have any thoughts for people who are feeling that way, feeling like this is something that needs to end and we need to get back to normal?

Yeah I think it’s a challenging conversation because there’s sort of this natural tension between being really cautious and I don’t think we completely understand the science and what the future is going to hold. And, really, the need – I see it as important for us to open the economy. There’s a lot of people who are unemployed and people who are living paycheck to paycheck. It’s… so how do you balance those two things? So I think you need to respect the science. You need to be concerned about what this [is], if there’s going to be a second wave but we need to figure out a way that we can continue to get people back to work in a safe manner. I think that we need to be cautious but we also need to figure out that there are other people who have needs and are seeing this from a different perspective. We need to respect that and see if we can come up with solutions to sort of bridge the gap. Those are my personal thoughts.

Is there anything that you would add, anything that I didn’t ask you about that you think is worth saying?

I would just say that being the water treatment services manager and being responsible for overseeing critical infrastructure it has been challenging to deal with the [range of] perspectives on this from different people. I’m forcing people to work because we need to deliver safe water to our customers. So you have some folks on the one side who are quite cavalier about this, saying I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of risk. And then you have some people who are really fearful and worried about their health (maybe they’re in a high-risk home because of either age or medical conditions). Having these people have to work side by side is not easy.

To me, what I’ve sort of come to terms with is that we all – and I’ve been trying to preach this amongst our staff – you really need to respect other people’s perspectives on this because they’re probably different than your own. I think as a community that’s something that we really need to work on. Everyone is not going to see this the same way and they have reasons for looking at this situation differently and you need to respect that, respect their opinion and try to create an environment where everybody feels comfortable and safe.

We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to try to create that environment at the water treatment plant. I think we’re gonna have to work on this for a long time to come because I don’t see that this is a situation that is going to be going away that rapidly.

I think those are really important thoughts. I appreciate you talking to me. I really thank you for taking the time because – everyone I’ve talked to who is working for the city in departments like yours, where the work is carrying on – I appreciate that you have taken a break from your serious work to do something like this. Thank you!

You’re welcome! Nice talking with you.