Gallatin water plant employees opt to quarantine together at work

BY KATE COIL

When closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic began occurring statewide, employees with the city of Gallatin’s water plant made a choice that not everyone would: to quarantine at work rather than at home.
Gallatin Chief Water Plant Operator Bennie Baggett, a 32-year veteran employee, began his quarantine at the plant on March 20. Baggett said his main concern was making sure there was someone who could operate the plant at all times while reducing the risk of employees to potential exposure to COVID-19.
After talking with officials from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and other water plant operators, Baggett initially decided to have volunteers work four days on and take three days off. However, with employees having to overlap shifts, the risk that one employee exposed to the virus could then infect all of the plant’s employees had to be taken into consideration.
“Unfortunately, the situation with the virus continued to get worse and worse in Sumner County,” he said. “The numbers were increasing every day. I finally made the decision to lock the six of us down for 28 days. I talked to everyone about it and got five volunteers.”
By April 5, Baggett and five other employees were living at the plant full-time.
Located on the bank of the Cumberland River next to State Route 109, the plant produces approximately 7.5 million gallons of treated water each day. In addition to customers in Gallatin, the facility also provides water to the town of Westmoreland and the Castalian Springs/Bethpage Utility District. Normally staffed 24/7, the six employees who have chosen to stay on are working round-the-clock to ensure water service continues as normal in these areas.
A tour bus provided by local business All Access Coach Leasing allows the employees to live on-site. The coach provides beds and a seating area for the employees to relax in. There is also a shower in the bus as well as showers in the plant for employees to use.
“It is going really well,” Baggett said. “The employees have really adapted and stepped up. We’ve had zero issues. You learn things about people you didn’t know before. Out of the five employees, three of them have worked with me for 15 to 25 years, so we knew each other pretty well. Of the other two, one has been here a couple of years and the other one only a few months.”
In addition to chatting online through Facebook and Zoom, employees have also been able to have visits with their families while observing social distancing.
“Our families are good,” Baggett said. “They have come out to drop off supplies and kept their distance. We have visited through the fence. A couple of them who are here don’t have immediate family that are local, so this isn’t much different.”
While employees have chosen to stay in the plant for the duration of natural disasters like tornados and floods before, this is the longest any water plant employee has stayed at the plant. Baggett said none of them expected to ever spend nearly a month at the plant.
“We’ve laughed a lot about it,” he said. “I have been here through the 2010 floods where I stayed three or four days working. I have been through tornados where I worked two or three days straight. During those times, though, you don’t really notice how long it’s been because you’re usually working really hard. During this, it’s been normal operations so you have to figure out ways to occupy you’re mind. We’ve walked the bridge in front of the plant I don’t know how many times. My biggest problem is I get bored, so I want to eat.”
Baggett said none of the employees expected to get much attention for choosing to stay at the plant.
“We kept it really quiet for a while, but once our Chamber of Commerce found out they put it out there,” he said. “We didn’t really expect people to react the way they did. It’s been pretty amazing. We’ve had several people who brought us food and desserts for us. I think I’ve eaten every kind of cupcake known to man. We have a German shepherd dog who stays out here with us and she got a care package worth a couple $100 bucks.”
When the quarantine lifts, Baggett said the employees are looking forward to the simple things.
“I have the luxury of having to go out and collect the bacteria samples from the water,” he said. “Me and an employee that works in the lab go out and collect samples daily, so we can leave the facility. The other four have basically been here and not left at all. They’ve talked about how they want to just get out and drive down the road and see something that’s not here at the plant. My biggest thing is that I have to get home and take care of the pool. It’s green, and my wife can’t get it fixed.”
David Kellogg, assistant superintendent of public utilities for the city of Gallatin said the employees deserve to be recognized for what they have done.
“It’s outstanding to have employees that take the initiative to do this and have the willingness to do it,” Kellogg said. “I don’t know if I have a word to describe how much I appreciate what they are doing.”