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Frontline workers still showing up for our country

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the country was quick to recognize the importance of professional truck drivers and the entire trucking industry in keeping store shelves stocked as panic ensued. Still today, these drivers risk their health and safety to bring goods and supplies to communities where the virus continues to permeate. And they are not alone – roughly 50 million frontline workers are continuing to carry out essential jobs to protect public health in the United States.

A recent report from the Brookings Institution, a respected public policy think tank in Washington, DC, identifies the population of frontline and essential workers in this country, outlines several issues they currently face, and provides recommendations to Congress on how to help. Notably, the report’s authors recommend that Congress designate a federal agency or coalition to define the list of frontline occupations and essential industries during pandemics and other emergencies. This list would then be used by Congress to inform debate around targeted worker support. It would also enable Congress to authorize public funding for personal protective equipment (PPE) since the size of the frontline workforce would be fully established.

While no congressionally mandated list has been developed yet, the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), part of the Department of Homeland Security, did produce a list that served as the basis for many federal actions related to the pandemic response. TCA has expressed our concern to lawmakers that, initially, professional truck drivers were not specifically included in the first version of CISA’s Essential Infrastructure Workers guidance that was released on March 19. On March 28, CISA released version 2.0 of the original guidance, which clarified trucking to be essential. TCA encourages Congress to codify in law trucking as an essential critical infrastructure workforce, and to create a full list of essential workers so that these individuals can continue to serve the nation during national emergencies.

As trucking experienced in March, the lack of clarity surrounding a federal definition of an “essential employee” led individual states to resort to instituting their own definitions, leaving some truck drivers fearful of being detained as areas implemented curfews or other travel restrictions. Other industries were affected by this confusion as well. Although the country was caught off guard by the COVID-19 outbreak, we can prevent this from happening to our critical infrastructure workers again. Congress can act now to enshrine these formal definitions in law to protect essential and frontline workers moving forward.