Redefining Critical Infrastructure and Essential Workers

By Bishop Garrison

As the country continues to deal with the fallout brought on by the coronavirus, missteps in early high-level decision-making and failure to heed the persistent warnings of our government’s experts about the need to better prepare for biological threats are creating a deficit of trust in the federal government to protect Americans.  Its inability to support sufficient basic information sharing needs, equipment in a timely manner, and mass testing will be important lessons for improving future preparedness. But we must expand on this to consider how the full system of national and international responses will work or break down. This includes technical solutions and improved decision making, but it must also incorporate our nation’s workers.  

One thing that has provided some level of security throughout these processes is the responses not only on the state level, even though they vary widely from state to state. How some citizens are responding and stepping up within communities has provided stories of heroism and compassion. In particular, the nation continues to witness men and women of all ages and backgrounds risking their own health and personal safety to ensure vital services are regularly provided. This goes beyond the typical definition of someone on the front lines. How do we define what makes a position a “critical need position” in this crisis? Further, how do we properly support and invest in these workers to ensure they are protected and able to maintain their efforts within the community during times of emergency?

Restructuring of resources to engage new, systemic threats and, in some cases, redefining the vital components that make up those resources is not new for the U.S. government. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which includes parts of the former National Protection and Programs Directorate, defines critical infrastructure as “the physical and cyber systems and assets that are so vital to the United States that their incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our physical or economic security or public health or safety.” CISA includes 16 critical infrastructure sectors that include the Defense Industrial Base, Dams, Emergency Services, Energy, and many others. Each individual sector has its own priorities and dependencies that span agencies and authority levels.

For instance, the Food and Agriculture Sector plan, led by the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, is a part of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP) and identifies four key areas of that sector’s critical dependencies: Water and Waste Systems, Transportation Systems, Energy, and Chemical sectors. As in many plans, the interests of private sector owners and operators are specifically called out as a part of the protection of the nation’s economic interests. Particularly of note in the time of a pandemic, millions of farms, nearly a million restaurants, and hundreds of thousands of food processing service providers are specifically called out. These businesses are critical to ensuring the nation’s food supplies remain safe and are able to continue to operate under normal conditions as much as circumstances may allow. Such protections are issues of both economic stability and national security. The nation must provide reasonable support to many businesses whose products remain important to our supply chains. However, the aforementioned critical infrastructure plans tend to overlook a key component that keeps these businesses operational: their employees. The constituencies of grocery store workers, delivery drivers, restaurant workers, and other positions critical to our communities have been a major part of the pandemic emergency response.

Many of these workers remain without associations, unions, or specific regulations providing critical protections as they continue to work under stressful and potentially dangerous conditions. These services provide much needed support that, without, modern American society may very well cease to function. While in practice, these groups provide essential services, the definition of what constitutes an essential worker varies widely across state lines. 

Resolving this issue is an important step to preventing future pandemics of the scale we are enduring today. A review of the Stafford Act regarding these groups and their place in our country’s emergency framework would be a strong first step towards greater representation, support, and recognizing the importance of these employees under law and not simply their employers. More predictability and protection for both workers and consumers mandates a baseline shared lexicon of how we discuss these terms and treat these individuals without infringing on the constitutional authority of state leaders to effectively manage crises. Whatever our next challenge may be, it’s clearly an imperative that officials think critically on how we define those institutions and businesses whose efforts will be of paramount importance in successfully meeting our goals.

Future infectious disease outbreaks will occur, but the current COVID-19 crisis makes clear that the United States must commit itself to never again allowing them to grow into mass-casualty pandemics. There are a variety of industries that come together to protect our society during difficult times and under arduous conditions. Maintaining the proper protections for all those involved will protect lives and maintain stability in the continuity of operations.

Bishop Garrison is Director of National Security Outreach at Human Rights First, and Policy Fellow with the Center for Climate and Security

* This post is part of the Council on Strategic Risks’ “Responsibility to Prepare and Prevent” Blog Series, designed to increase the tempo and scale of relevant and useful analysis during a time of crisis


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