Our Essential Workers: Washougal’s Joe Miller

Wastewater treatment plant collections specialist adapts to changes at work, home during pandemic

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Joe Miller (right), the city of Washougal's wastewater treatment plant collections specialist, receives a certificate of recognition from Mayor Molly Coston. (Contributed photo courtesy of Joe Miller)

Washougal wastewater treatment plant collections specialist Joe Miller has seen an increase in demand for his services since the outbreak of COVID-19.

“With people home more, toilets are getting a lot more use, and there are more problems with flow and backups,” Miller said. “And people are flushing things they’re not supposed to be flushing, like bleach wipes, which aren’t flushable they don’t break down and can get caught in the main line. Last week alone, I helped three people with plugs. We’re trying to educate people and make sure they understand what they can and can’t do.”

But that’s not the only challenge that Miller is currently dealing with. Because of the fact that the city modified its work shifts to comply with social distancing orders, only two wastewater employees are working at one time one in the plant and one in collections instead of the usual five.

“We used to be preventative first. Now we’re reactive,” Miller said. “(This situation) will take a toll on our inspections. We try to hit certain goal numbers every year, but this year I’m sure we’ll be shy (of our goals). Our services aren’t going away; if there’s an issue, we can call in (an employee who’s working from home) and still be able to fix it. But we’re short-handed in a sense.”

The changes have been implemented “as smoothly as possible,” and the department is doing its best to adapt to an “ever-changing environment,” according to Miller.

“We’re usually a lot more personal with the public; we’ll go to the house, and talk with them, and they’ll show us their issues,” he said. “Now we’re asking them to stay indoors and we’ll communicate with them by phone. And the city has done a pretty good job of giving us everything we need gloves, masks, eye protection to keep ourselves protected. And the city has transitioned to one person per vehicle. I know it looks funny, but there are situations when two or three trucks are following each other to one job. That’s just normal now. In the past, that would’ve been frowned upon.”

Miller has done a good job of adjusting to the changes, according to Ryan Baker, his supervisor.

“Joe, like all of the other 10 members of the water and wastewater division personnel in the city of Washougal, is a team and community centric person,” said Baker, the city’s water and wastewater superintendent. “On a routine basis, the utility crews go above and beyond to ensure that the city is delivering safe and quality drinking water to our citizens, and treating the water after it leaves houses before it enters the Columbia River to ensure a sustainable environment for wildlife and recreation.”

Miller has also had to adapt to new circumstances at home, which he shares with his girlfriend and four teenagers.

“I’m the only one who’s going in and out right now, so when I come home I jump right in the shower and put my clothes in the washer,” he said. “It’s been tough with family; I haven’t seen my parents (lately). And my grandmother has bad lungs, so I haven’t been able to see her, but I’ve been calling her a ton to make sure she’s OK.”

Miller is helping his children all teenagers adjust to their ‘new normal,’ which includes online instructional activities.

“We’re teaching them about (new) routines,” Miller said. “It’s been different. We’ve kind of been at a loss to figure out how (the online learning) is going to work, but everybody is adapting quite well. The kids weren’t accustomed to staying at least 6 feet away from people and washing their hands all the time, but they’re getting used to it. It’s nice that there’s four of them so they can kind of rely on each other.”

Miller, who was raised in Washougal and graduated from Washougal High School, joined the city in 2016. Before that, he spent 14 years at Evraz Oregon Steel Mill in Portland as an environmental specialist.

“I love the community relations (aspect of my job) for sure,” he said. “I feel that I’m  truly able to give back in a small community like this. I love what the city does for the people ‘How are we going to help as many people as we can?’ We provide a lot of essential services, and people are thankful because they don’t think about some of these issues until they happen.”

Baker said that Miller and his colleagues “are crucial assets to the community during this critical time by continuing to provide effective operations and maintenance of the city’s vital infrastructure while maintaining a level and compassionate demeanor.”

“I admire the team’s compassion during these trying times,” Baker said. “In every conversation within the city offices and outside with citizens, the first question from everyone is, ‘How are you?’ or ‘What can I do to help?’”

“For myself, I go to work every day wanting to know why I’m there,” Miller said. “When I was at the mill, I never thought about what happens if (some of these issues) happen at my house there would be no shower, no laundry. That’s the rewarding part of the job I understand how those things work, and 99 percent of the time I know how to fix it. It’s a stressful time for people right now, and the rewarding part of our job is that we can say, ‘Hey, I can help you and get you back up and running and take the stress off for you and your family.’”