It’s Time to Legally Define Essential Workers

By Susie Hoeller and Ben Theyerl

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) a global health emergency after the virus spread from its origin in Wuhan, China. U.S. President Donald Trump issued a national emergency proclamation on March 13, 2020. Since public health is primarily a state responsibility, governors issued “stay at home” orders, travel restrictions and quarantines to slow the spread of the virus. Essential businesses and their workers were exempted from these measures.

Prior to this pandemic, the concept of “essential work” was not at the forefront of public consciousness or concern. This lack of attention is not surprising because our society has taken essential workers for granted over the years. Why? Because in most areas of our country, most of the time, things run smoothly – hospitals treat patients, police patrol, firemen put out fires, the electricity comes on and the grocery stores are fully stocked.

Today, there is no U.S. statutory definition of occupations which are deemed to be “essential.” During the pandemic, this lack of statutory definition has led to a confusing situation in which 50 state governors have issued divergent (and sometimes controversial) definitions of essential work. When the grocery store shelves quickly emptied due to panic buying in March and April 2020, causing shortages, especially of meat and poultry, many Americans started worrying about the food supply for the first time in their lives.

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