How Southeast Plant Workers Show Care for Each Other and Our Infrastructure

Imagine 80% of San Francisco’s wastewater being transported to one treatment plant. What does that look like?

No need to imagine, at the SFPUC’s Southeast Treatment Plant (SEP) crews are working 24/7 to treat millions of gallons of wastewater a day.

During the pandemic, workers at SEP have not missed a beat as they continue to go the extra mile to make sure the treatment plant continues to do what it is supposed to, while undergoing a much needed upgrade to work better, look better, and smell better. Built in 1952 in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, the facility is past its useful life and may generate odors that impact the neighborhood. The new SEP is practically being built from the ground up to protect this critical plant in the event of an earthquake.

“All the staff here play an important part in protecting the Bay. Whether we work in Maintenance, are an electrician or a painter, we have a responsibility and take pride in what we do as essential workers,” said John O’Connell, Process Chief at the Southeast Plant, Wastewater Enterprise.

Brittany McMartin, Apprentice Maintenance Machinist, operating a lathe.

O’Connell said that the plant is under full construction where many operational upgrades are being put into place. Every day, heavy equipment is excavating all over the plant, contractors are coming in and out and dust is being kicked up daily. O’Connell shared it’s been a challenging environment to work in, but the care and hard work that each worker is putting in, is what keeps everything running and going strong. “We recently lost power to parts of the plant during construction, but our maintenance crew, electricians, and the Sewer System Improvement Program staff all worked together to troubleshoot and eventually split power to the plant so were able to continue with little disruption. This is what I mean when we say, we have a good team here. Our staff jumps in to help whenever they can. I am very grateful.”

Steve Jones, Superintendent of Facilities for Wastewater, records safety messages to play for plant workers.

For the last year, the painters have stepped up to perform COVID-19 health screenings for colleagues and essential plant visitors.

“Before they could get their first cup of coffee, they were learning names and greeting you,” explained O’Connell. “Not only did it bring a smile to your day, but it showed camaraderie. They stepped out from doing what they normally do to help. That speaks for itself.”

“Health Screenings were new to all of us, but our group was happy to help where we could. At first, health screenings were something that everyone had to get used to, but staff got more comfortable with it as time went on. In fact, we bonded over it. I could have a quick chat with people before they started their day. It was a great experience,” explained Dermot Rice, a painter for the SFPUC’s Wastewater Division.

Steve Jones, Superintendent of Facilities for Wastewater, took it upon himself to use an old PA System at SEP to remind staff about social distancing and wearing face masks. Jones explained that for him, making announcements was his way of showing he cares about the health and safety of his colleagues.

“No matter how you are feeling, what you have experienced, I have experienced it too. We have way more in common than we have differences. We need to look out for each other. We spend more time at work than we do at home. This is family,” he explained.

From left to right: Philip Britto, Jorge Gonzalez, Eric Perez, and Necho Foote.

For the last year and counting, O’Connell explained how staff has stepped up to provide coverage for each other, when one needed to take some time off to take care of themselves and their family.

“We can’t go a week without calling someone in to cover some part of the plant on overtime because someone has called in sick. The staff continues to show time and time again that they care.”
And taking care of each other is somewhat of a theme. Christian Losno, Materials Coordinator for Wastewater, manages storekeepers, purchasing and accounting. He recalled at the very beginning of the pandemic, how personal protection equipment supplies were in short supply at the Wastewater warehouse and throughout the City. His group made sure they were able to “share the love” by rationing supplies.

Stationary engineers at Bruce Flynn Pump station. Left to right: Jessie Garcia, Ruben Irias, Sr. and Marc Johnson.

“We did what we had to, to make sure everybody in Wastewater felt like they were getting what they needed to do their jobs. We are a team, and we wanted to support any way we could,” exclaimed Losno. “I’m thankful, my team remained as a team. We exist as a family and they always step up through thick and thin.”

“Everyone has a role to play here,” shared O’Connell. “The staff here really stepped up during this unprecedented time. I want to thank each and every one of you. You know who you are. You have shown us that as wastewater workers, we are resilient.”