Fear of two emergencies at once — a major COVID outbreak and an earthquake, for example — gave Joone Lopez many sleepless nights.

In the wee hours, the general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District worried about the vulnerability of her field crew to infection.

“They still have to be out there. They can’t work from home,” Lopez said. “So, if they get exposed to somebody with COVID or tests positive for COVID and they give it to everybody on their team, I could have the entire field crew wiped out.”

To contain any possible outbreaks — and keep frontline workers ready for a major calamity — Lopez divided her staff of water testers, distribution operators, mechanics and electricians into two teams. A red team and a green team, each with color-coded face masks, wristbands and caps.

When responding to anything from a burst water main to a malfunctioning lift station, the red guys would know to keep their distance and those in green.

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“(When) we respond to an emergency, it’s chaotic, so much stuff is going on,” said Lopez, who has headed Moulton Niguel for 8 ½ years. “I might not remember or know what team you’re on. But by the face mask that we wear, … I’m going to try to put some distance, as much as I can, between you and I.”

The coronavirus pandemic raised new challenges for the 161-employee water agency. To keep employees and customers safe, it had to devise new protocols for staff and vendors, shutting down its office in Aliso Viejo and ordering office staff to work from home.

Lopez said her agency’s COVID response is just the latest example of how it takes the welfare of employees into account while providing clean drinking water to 172,000 residents in six South County cities, from Laguna Hills to Dana Point.

The workers apparently appreciate that level of concern. Based on a survey of Moulton Niguel’s staff, the agency’s ranked first place this year in the Register’s Top Workplaces competition out of 63 mid-sized participants. It’s the fourth year in a row that Moulton Niguel placed among the top four companies and organizations of its size.

This year, 151 of Orange County’s 864,000 companies with 50 or more employees took part in Top Workplaces.

Moulton Niguel is one of 31 water providers in Orange County. The agency’s crew provides water to 55,000 accounts, maintaining 1,240 miles of water and sewer lines.

What makes Moulton Niguel a top-ranking workplace four years in a row?

“It’s the people,” Lopez said. “When you have amazing people, you can’t help but have an incredible culture of kindness (and) service.”

Even the best companies have their detractors.

One person claiming to be a former Moulton Niguel project manager posted on the Glassdoor website said that while co-workers were very smart and a “great group of peers,” upper management “crushes the dreams and energy” of its staff.

Joone Lopez

Responses to the Top Workplace survey, however, were far more positive.

“We have the best people in the industry,” one employee wrote.

“MNWD is a family, and this is even more strongly reinforced during this pandemic,” wrote another. “MNWD has put our families’ safety first.”

By ensuring workers have sufficient personal protective equipment and splitting field workers into separate crews, the agency “has taken important steps to keep their employees safe,” said Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, the union representing some of Moulton Niguel’s workers.

“We hold them in very high regard,” Barfield said of the water district.

Lopez said her goal is to create an environment where everyone feels safe — both physically and emotionally. Employees need to feel supported, valued and part of something great, she said.

“When you focus on something greater and bigger than yourself, you can’t help but have an amazing experience,” Lopez said. “Work shouldn’t be just about work.”

Because of the pandemic, Moulton Niguel had to find new ways to keep the water flowing while protecting its staff.

For office personnel, that means telecommuting. Lopez also ensures contractors and vendors follow COVID response protocols “so our regard for safety is communicated to everyone we interact with.”

Managers talk every day. The company has an “all hands” meeting at least once a month — a virtual version of what Moulton Niguel used to do in person.

As of October, the agency had just one case of an employee being infected with COVID-19.

Pay and benefits include health insurance, life insurance and disability coverage. The water district covers 73% of the health insurance premium for employees choosing to have a PPO plan and 89% of the premium for those choosing an HMO.

The district provides a pension and a 2% match to the 457(b) retirement plan.

Such a benefits package is considered “lean” compared with other public agencies, said Moulton Niguel Human Resources Director Gina Hillary.

While pay and benefits are important, one’s experience on the job is more significant, Lopez said.

“From the beginning (of the pandemic) until now, our employees have been so dedicated to our customers, being resourceful, going above and beyond because they believe in what we do,” Lopez said.  “Being a top workplace means better service to our customers, and it creates an environment that fosters trust.”

No. 1 Midsize: Moulton Niguel Water District

Founded: 1960

City: Laguna Hills

OC employees:161

Website: mnwd.com

Quote: “When you focus on something greater and bigger than yourself, you can’t help but have an amazing experience,” Lopez said. “Work shouldn’t be just about work.” — Joone Lopez, general manager of Moulton Niguel Water District


By Richard Moran

Richard Moran loves to write about sports with the Golden State Online. Before that, he worked as a senior writer at ESPN. Richard grew up in San Diego and graduated from the University of San Diego in 2004, after which he worked as an editor for five years.

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