How county employees got paid when the power went out and what that taught us about emergency planning
By: Mary Hall

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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Leaders from across Thurston County recently took part in a multi-day exercise to outline how our community would come back from a 9.0 Cascadia event earthquake.

The exercise underlined the need for plans that help us carry out government functions, like paying county workers, even if the power goes out.

Payroll staff with the Thurston County Auditor's office went through their own real-world exercise when the power went out on the day they were scheduled to run payroll late last September. Staff from all of the divisions in the Auditor's Office – Elections, Licensing and Recording and Financial Services – continued working during the blackout. The experience of our payroll staff is an excellent illustration of why continuation of operations plans (COOP) are important.

Payroll staff in the Financial Services division of the Auditor's Office process paychecks for every one of the 1,200 county staff. So when the power went out, they leapt into action and executed a plan that they'd written specifically for such an instance.

Their COOP guides various functions of the Auditor's office under a broad range of emergency situations, including losing power. A good COOP includes elements like how an office can continue to provide essential functions (like completing payroll) and what facilities are available to complete these functions.

"The first thing we did was pickup and move our work out to the county's emergency management office," said Cheryl Rischel, payroll business applications administrator. But it turns out that once they reached the emergency management office eight miles away, the computer that was available to them did not have authorization for the software they needed to process payroll.

The payroll process includes compiling a large data file and then uploading that file to the county's bank to authorize direct deposits by the end of the day.

"This was a good opportunity for us to run through our COOP and see what would actually work," said Sue Bye, payroll accounting assistant. "This was just the power going out at the courthouse. In an emergency like an earthquake there wouldn't have even been enough room for us out at emergency services."

Sue and Cheryl ended up coming back to the dark courthouse and locating a laptop in the treasurer's office (which did have emergency power and Wi-Fi) to upload the file.

The episode was not only an example of dedicated public servants finding solutions, but also a testament to COOPs and how they work. It isn't just about writing the plan, but also improving on it when the opportunity arises. "This was a great way for us to iron out the wrinkles in our COOP and make it better," Bye said.

Since the power outage last fall, the payroll COOP has evolved. Instead of going to the emergency management, financial staff will head to a computer lab in another nearby county building that would have emergency power. "In an emergency, making sure county employees' payroll is taken care of while they are responding is important," Rischel said. "By writing and updating our COOP plan, we can keep the county's financial services, including payroll and accounts payable, operating."