Puzzles and Potato Goulash: How Energy Workers Keep Lights On in Vienna

BERLIN — When Helmut Wallner heard that the energy company he worked for was looking for volunteers to go into isolation for at least a month to ensure the lights stayed on in Vienna, he said the decision was easy.

“I didn’t even need a second to think,” he said in a video call from the bed of a shipping container in the Simmering power plant, where he has been living with 20 others since March 20. “I was together with my wife, and we knew within seconds that I had to go.”

Mr. Wallner was one of 53 employees ultimately selected to enter isolation at four power stations across the Austrian capital run by the Wien Energie company, which provides power and heat to two million people in the city.

Days after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria ordered public life in the country reduced to a minimum to try to counter the coronavirus, Wien Energie’s crisis team began turning conference rooms into dormitories and organizing washing machines, fitness equipment and wireless internet in the power stations that would become homes to the teams, which number six to 21 workers per squad.

“It is an exceptional measure in an exceptional time,” Alexander Kirchner, who heads the crisis team, said of the decision to isolate key workers at the power plants, where just one infected employee could force an entire team into quarantine, jeopardizing the ability to run the plant.

“They are completely cut off from the rest of the world, so that they can remain healthy,” Mr. Kirchner said in a telephone interview. “They are the last resort, the guarantee that all power plants will continue to function.”

The employees were selected from a pool of volunteers on criteria including professionalism, overall psychological stability, ability to work in a team and a negative test for coronavirus. Most of the volunteers were men, leading to the building of all-male teams.

Depending on how the situation develops, their assignment may be extended for up to two weeks beyond the current April 16 deadline. If even one member of a team wanted out, the whole group would be swapped out for another team, Mr. Kirchner said.

At the moment, things look relatively positive for the teams to be withdrawn on time. Last week, Mr. Kurz, the chancellor, announced a “step-by-step resurrection” of the economy, allowing more shops to open, starting April 14.

As one of the more senior members of his team, Mr. Wallner, a 30-year veteran of Wien Energie, was chosen to serve largely because of his well of knowledge. His experience would help ensure that he would be able to take over and run things, with three other colleagues, if an infection were to break out among the team of 21 at the Simmering plant.

Upon arrival, Mr. Wallner learned that he would be taking on another, unexpected job. “I am spending most of my time in the kitchen,” Mr. Wallner said, laughing. “My wife is an exceptional cook, and normally I am not even allowed in the kitchen, but here we have to prepare the meals for all of the 53 workers in isolation so that we can remain autonomous.”

The Simmering station was the only plant of the four that was equipped with a full industrial kitchen. A chef was included as part of the team to help prepare menus, order ingredients to be delivered and oversee the cooking of meals, which are then distributed to the three other plants.

“So far, we haven’t had any complaints,” Mr. Wallner said.

For Steven Sacher, 24, an engineer at the Flötzersteig plant, the potato goulash served on Saturdays is worthy of anticipation. “It’s one of my favorite dishes, and theirs is very good,” he said.

Passing the time is one of the main challenges the teams face when they are not working one of the three shifts that rotate over 24 hours, seven days a week. They have Wi-Fi access to connect with family and friends. Mr. Wallner and his wife have developed a regular time to speak by video.

Each plant also has a fitness room and common living area, stocked with activities including PlayStations and board games.

“It took us five days to take out the PlayStation,” Mr. Wallner said, attributing that to the average age of his team (around 50). “And now it is gathering dust.”

His team has turned to jigsaw puzzles, he said. “We have finished about 20 puzzles with 2,000 pieces. We just dump them out on a table, and everyone who has time stops and works on it a bit.”

At the Flötzersteig plant, the PlayStation also sits around largely unused, Mr. Sacher said. Although they are all in their 20s, the team of six has also been drawn to hunching over a table trying to fit together the 1,000 pieces of a puzzle showing the Brooklyn Bridge at night.

Their evening ritual involves a classic board game, he added.

“Every night at 9 p.m. sharp, the four of us who aren’t working get together and play Parcheesi,” he said. “It’s a more communal game, a nice way to interact with each other.”

In any case, interaction is difficult to avoid, with private space at a premium. Although the workers at the larger plant were offered the option of separating those who snore from those who do not, they sleep two men to a space, taking turns to use it for making calls.

“I miss my own bed,” Mr. Sacher admitted.

Like so many people who are sheltering in their homes, the workers said that they missed contact with their wider family and friends, as well as hikes in the woods around Vienna for Mr. Wallner, or hanging out on the banks of the Danube River, for Mr. Sacher.

Yet neither saw his situation as extreme, pointing out that doctors, nurses and other health workers had it much tougher and that all of them were just doing their part. “We are just a cog in a much bigger wheel,” Mr. Sacher said.

Instead, they said, they feel that life in isolation conditions has brought out the best in one another.

“I have known many of these people since 30 years, and in this microcosm, we have become even more polite and even more conscientious of one another,” Mr. Wallner said.

Mr. Sacher said that members of his team who were off duty could often be found hanging around in the control room with those on the job, giving extra support, whether professional or moral.

“Everyone is looking out for everyone else, not just for themselves,” he said. “I hope that is something that will continue when this is over.”

Praise for the teams has rolled in across social media from Vienna and around the world. “Thank you all. It is immensely important that our infrastructure continues to function,” a Facebook user called Helmut Zemlicka wrote in one of more than 400 posts on the company’s page. “I’m so happy that there are people in this country who can and do help.”

In the Simmering plant, one colleague began printing the reactions and posting them near the central message board, as a reminder of why they were there.

Mr. Kirchner said he was surprised by the attention.

“We’ve had offers of food, coaching, games and puzzles,” he said, all of which had to be turned down because of the isolation rules. “But I’m very proud of them and of the fact that these men, who have a high level of responsibility because they provide essential services, but are normally not seen, are now being recognized.”

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