Answering the Call: Behind the Department of Energy Employee COVID19 Hotline

“In the beginning, we were working seven days a week. 10, 12, 14-hour days and weekends,” said Anthony ‘Tony’ Pierpoint.  “It was a bit chaotic.”

Pierpoint and a team of volunteers across the Department of Energy have been staffing a hotline for COVID-19 questions and answers since mid-March, offering guidance to employees and contractors of the U.S. Department of Energy on hundreds of different questions.  These questions range from health and safety issues to time and leave, workplace flexibilities, cleaning, community resources, reopening, and more.

As the hotline got set up, Pierpoint, who regularly serves as the Director of the Office of Domestic and International Health Studies in the Office of Environment, Health, Safety, and Security helped the COVID-19 Response Team Manager Cherylynne Williams pull together a team, create IT systems to support hotline reporting and metrics, draft and approve comprehensive and accurate scripts to responses, develop training, stand up standard operating procedures, and fulfill his day job.

“I was amazed early on how many folks volunteered to support the hotline,” he said. The group grew from a small handful of volunteers and a few staffers on temporary detail to over 30 individuals who are now picking up calls, tracking incoming information and questions, and working to support contact tracing and notification for those who are confirmed or suspected cases in the Energy Department workforce.

Calls are answered by people with many different backgrounds within the agency, including health physicists, health and safety professionals, administrative policy experts, and others who want to support the cause.

For Robin Keeler, an Industrial Hygienist who has worked at the Energy Department for 12 years, joining the hotline team was a chance to support her colleagues.  It was also a good match for her skill set in the Office of Worker Safety and Health Policy and as someone who has specialized in the field of biological safety. She helps answer questions that come in, log and track responses, and create report summaries for DOE senior leadership.

“We’re doing this because we want to be able to provide help and we want to be able to respond. We play the role of a subject-matter expert in our day jobs; now it is sort of in a different environment,” Pierpoint said.  “We are all committed now to seeing this through, even if it means working extra hours.” Pierpoint has only been the Director of his Office for a few weeks, having previously served in an acting role.  His background is in worker safety and health, supporting safety and health studies. He was tapped to manage the internal DOE COVID-19 hotline because he managed the OSHA hotline for years, taking “hundreds and hundreds of calls a day” along with emails regarding health and safety issues.

Department of Energy employees are encouraged to join the effort. “We may need additional support in the future,” Pierpoint said. “This is likely to continue for a while. Folks who are interested in supporting the hotline should definitely give us a call,” Pierpoint said.

The Internal COVID-19 Hotline team fully trains and prepares all volunteers for the job, provides scripts and standard operating procedure guidance, and has experts on hand to turn to for unique or uncommon questions. Employees who want to get involved should call the hotline to connect with the team and offer assistance.

“You will get a chance to work with some great people, learn new things, and help out,” says Keeler. “We are always grateful to have new folks join the team.”

Beyond the people behind the calls, Pierpoint is grateful to the Department of Energy’s technology team for their support during nights and weekends to set up the software and hardware systems needed to get the job done. “It was miraculous in how quickly they were able to respond,” he said of the EITS staff. “To get all those people access with DOE computers, fully functional with all the additional software and platforms they needed was an impressive task given the limited accessibility conditions we are working under.”

The work continues and the hotline team is ready to assist. “While it’s been some stressful days and a lot of work, it’s been a valuable learning experience,” Pierpoint said.  “If there was another opportunity for me to provide support I would absolutely do that. You get a lot of personal satisfaction out of doing this type of work. We’re doing a job that is essential.”


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