WILLMAR — Shop doors are propped open, lunch tables spread out, hand sanitizer, disinfecting spray and masks are available for all and equipment and vehicles are being cleaned before and after use. With these and other health and safety protocols in place, Willmar Public Works is hoping to get back to full strength, just as the busy spring and summer season increases the amount of work needing to be done.

"If we do it right, we have more than enough protections so that our workers don't cross-contaminate each other, or spread it," said Brian Gramentz, Willmar City Administrator.

Gramentz and Public Works Supervisor Gary Manzer last week shared their ideas with the Willmar City Council's Labor Committee about how to get all of Public Works back to work.

"I really think it is important we get going and get people back to doing their job," Manzer said during the April 27 meeting.

Since the governor first issued a stay-at-home order several weeks ago, the city had cut back on the amount of work and number of employees allowed to work. Manzer said it did not sit well with some of his staff that they were being sidelined, even on a part-time basis, as they feel they are essential workers.

"It just hit them hard, they just want to get back," Manzer said.

The council members on the committee were quick to say how important public works is to the city.

"We value the public works employees," said Councilor Shawn Mueske. "We have to get them back to work and back to work safely."

Manzer said the layout of the Public Works shop has been rearranged, to make sure social distancing is possible. Also, half of the crew will be housed in a different building, to again reduce the chance of spreading the disease.

Council members urged workers to wear masks when they are working in groups or when in contact with the public.

"I just want to make sure they are safe. Our charge is to make sure our people are safe," said Councilor Fernando Alvarado.

The decision has also been made not to hire 8 to 10 part-time workers for the summer, who usually do tasks such as lawn mowing. Instead, the plan is to have Parks and Recreation employees, who have seen their programming decimated by pandemic closures, fill those gaps.

"We have about three or so people in Parks and Rec," Gramentz said. "We have the ability to carry that out."

While the committee agreed with staff to get people back to work, they still want to follow any state orders and recommendations.

"We need to model what we are expecting from other businesses in the community," said Councilor Kathy Schwantes.

While the recently extended stay-at-home order lasts through May 18, Gramentz said no matter when the order expires, the city is going to have to find ways to get employees back at work so the projects and services city residents rely on and expect can continue.

"If we run into something we didn't anticipate, we will make adjustments, overcome and move on," Gramentz said.

Manzer was grateful for the committee's support to put his plans in place.

"We will do our darnedest to stay safe," Manzer said.

At the May 4 meeting of the Willmar City Council, a week after the labor meeting, Gramentz and Public Works director Sean Christensen said the plan was being put into place and staff members were adjusting.

"I think it is working out really well," Christensen said.

There were some council comments, predominately positive, about the move to bring more staff back to work. As long as the city can follow the governor's order and guidelines, the feeling was the city should be able to bring its staff back.

"A lot of the things they do around town, we don't realize until they are not getting done," said Councilor Andrew Plowman.

The Labor Committee last week also discussed establishing a COVID sick bank. This would allow staff to donate unused sick time to the bank. The donated time would then be available for other staff to use if they do get sick.

"It would be really nice to have that available to anyone who have used their emergency sick leave during the shutdown and won't have any of that if they need to quarantine or self-isolate," said Samantha Beckman, city human resources director.

There was also discussion last week about the need to schedule a meeting to address upcoming contract negotiations along with future hiring and succession planning, all examples that, despite the pandemic, life does keep moving forward.

"To me the COVID virus thing is a bump in the road of the long life of a city. We are planning roads that should be here another 100 years from now." said Gramentz. "I don't want to get so caught up in the COVID-19 that we can't do anything. No, we still have to look after our best interest."