The global COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented economic and operational impacts for our industry, not to mention the high degree of uncertainty that now exists. Even more serious than business impacts, are the human costs of the pandemic, which have resulted in many lives lost and profound changes to our daily lives. Although the effect on the water and wastewater industry is significant, the impact is likely slightly less than across general industry. Our sector is primarily classified as essential, thus allowing work to continue in most cases.
In-person contact has largely been eliminated, at least in the near term. Most organizations have implemented travel bans. This is truly contradictory to the personal relationship and consultative approach that our industry is traditionally based and reliant upon. Economic challenges abound for utilities, manufacturers, and manufacturers’ representatives. The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) is estimating a $12.5 Billion revenue loss for the utility sector. WWEMA has surveyed 35 of its members on impacts of the pandemic. As expected, every firm indicated that there was a detrimental effect on their business. Ninety-two percent of manufacturers had an impact on orders. Most predict no sales growth in the second half of 2020. Twenty percent reported employment decline and 64 percent have delayed hiring. Twenty percent have delayed capital purchases. Common effects include delivery delays, difficulty in getting startup personnel to site, projects being deferred or canceled, delays in bid dates, supply chain disruptions, and much more.
WWEMA has created and is frequently updating a specific COVID-19 Fact Sheet, which can be found online. This comprehensive reference tool is available to the industry and public at large. A number of manufacturers have developed grant programs to assist the global community in responding to the crisis. Forty-four percent of WWEMA manufacturing members and 60 percent of WWEMA representative members have taken advantage of the federal Payroll Protection Program. Many manufacturers and service organizations have reconfigured workspaces to support social distancing, have implemented remote work or have put a rotational in-office approach in place, while increasing technology use.
Times of crisis typically create unique opportunities for innovation. CDM-Smith, in coordination with Michigan State University, is in the process of developing a model for public health officials that would use wastewater surveillance to track and predict the potential location and timing of viral outbreaks. Many of us are using this unique moment in time to upgrade our IT capabilities. This has the potential to reduce future costs due to increased utilization of remote work, video conferencing, and increased use of technology in general. Virtual meetings are even being used in pre-bid situations. Electronic documentation and signatures, operator training, equipment start-up, and training are coming into play. Due to the strength of the pre-crisis economy, we should see a degree of economic rebound, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Although the near-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is largely negative, the experience gained during this time will result in the creation of crucial new capabilities that will help us all to deal with future catastrophic events. Our industry is hearty. We will continue to flourish and prosper, while providing a critical service to the world. WW