In early October 2020, as the White House emerged as a hotspot for Covid-19 transmission, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany revealed her own positive diagnosis. In a message to the national press corps, she sought to project an image of heroic sacrifice. “As an essential worker,” she wrote, “I have worked diligently to provide needed information to the American people.” McEnany’s appropriation of the term “essential worker” was perhaps ill-advised, given the Trump administration’s general indifference to protecting those whose occupations placed them at risk.1Editorial Board, “‘You’re On Your Own,’ Essential Workers Are Being Told,” New York Times, April 20, 2020. In late October, Vice President Mike Pence assumed the mantle of “essential worker” in order to continue campaigning after several of his staff members were diagnosed with COVID-19. “Health Experts Question Pence Campaigning as Essential Work,” Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2020. But it also pointed to the fluidity of the category, which was unfamiliar before the pandemic but which is now widely recognized, even if its boundaries remain unclear. An estimated 50 to 60 million Americans have jobs that are designated as “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security.2Adie Tomer and Joseph W. Kane, “How to Protect Essential Workers during COVID-19,” Brookings Institution, March 31, 2020. The designation encompasses a vast array of occupations, from physicians to truck drivers, from software engineers to meat processing plant workers.“The stakes of such a definition are high, in that the category provides states with a rationale for allowing certain industries and services to continue to operate when much of social and economic life is shut down.”
Such a variegated terrain points to the question of how, precisely, the category of essential worker is delimited. The stakes of such a definition are high, in that the category provides states with a rationale for allowing certain industries and services to continue to operate when much of social and economic life is shut down. The federal government defines the category to include “workers who conduct a range of operations and services that are essential to continued infrastructure viability.”3Christopher C. Krebs, “Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers during COVID-19 Response,” US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security, March 19, 2020. But in practice, it can seemingly be expanded in an ad hoc fashion, as when California added recreational cannabis to its list of essential industries or when the governor of Florida declared World Wrestling Entertainment to be an essential service. Significant contestation has arisen over which industries should be deemed essential, as in the National Rifle Association’s legal efforts to ensure that gun shops remain open or the Trump administration’s classification of teachers as “critical infrastructure workers” in order to enable states to require them to work onsite.4→Ari Natter, “‘Essential’ Label Stirs Business Frenzy to Make Trump’s List,” Bloomberg News, April 14, 2020.
→Valerie Strauss, “The Trump Administration Declared Teachers ‘Essential Workers.’ Here’s What that Means,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.
A number of other tensions have emerged around the politics of the essential: How to ensure that essential workers receive adequate protection against contagion; whether such workers should receive special compensation for their heightened exposure to risk; and—now on the horizon—how they should be prioritized in vaccine allocation schemes. Perhaps most critically, the category points to a fundamental inequality at the heart of the US pandemic response: In many cases, essential workers have no choice but to put themselves at risk, working in industries—such as meat processing, agriculture, and logistics—where they keep supply chains operational so that others may work remotely.5Shawn Hubler, Thomas Fuller, Anjali Singvia and Juliette Love, “Many Latinos Couldn’t Stay Home. Now Virus Cases are Soaring in their Communities,” New York Times, June 26, 2020. Those whose work is categorized as “essential” are often those whose lives are most precarious.
Despite the apparent novelty of the “essential worker” category, and the controversies that have arisen around its application, there has been little discussion up to this point on where the category came from or why it made such a prominent entrance onto the pandemic scene. This essay explores how a technique of classification that emerged from the world of national security planning became a source of subjective identification and an object of political contestation—one that pointed to a new form of vulnerability. As we will see, the category of essential worker arose from a broader security framework, dating from the early Cold War, for governing collective life in a future emergency. Specifically, it comes from the practice of defining certain industrial and service sectors as elements of “critical infrastructure.” Designed to mitigate vulnerability, the concept of “essential worker” has, during the pandemic, become its own source of risk.6The historical material in this essay is based on a collaboration with Stephen Collier on the genealogy of emergency government in the United States. A detailed discussion appears in Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff, The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (Princeton, forthcoming).
Essential during Covid-19
On March 19, 2020, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the US Department of Homeland Security released a guidance for state and local officials on “the identification of essential critical infrastructure workers during the Covid-19 response.”7Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, “Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 response,” March 19, 2020. For the sake of “public health and safety and community well-being” during the pandemic emergency, the guidance stated, certain industries had “a special responsibility to continue operations” even in the face of stay-at-home orders from public health authorities. “In the modern economy,” it explained, “reliance on technology and on just-in-time supply chains means that certain workers must be able to access certain sites, facilities, and assets in order to ensure continuity of functions.” As for the question of which workers should remain physically on site, the document included lists of dozens of specific occupations—classified according to 16 different infrastructure sectors, including food and agriculture, healthcare and public health, transportation, and commercial facilities.
The guidance was advisory rather than directive: The matter of determining actual exceptions to stay-at-home orders was under the purview of individual states rather the federal government. Although implementation of the guidance varied according to local political and social environments, we can look at California for one prominent example of how essential worker policy was put into action. In a March 19 executive order, Governor Gavin Newsom required “all individuals” living in the state to stay at home “except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors” identified in the DHS guidance.8Executive Department, State of California, Executive Order N-33-20, March 19, 2020. Given “the importance of these sectors to Californians’ health and wellbeing,” the order stated, those employed in these vital sectors “may continue their work.”“At the heart of the essential worker policy was an assumption that the well-being of the collective depended on securing the continuous flow of resources through a set of vital, vulnerable systems.”
Here it is worth pausing to consider the form of rationality underlying these government pronouncements. Insofar as essential worker policy was directed toward fostering the “health and wellbeing” of the population in the midst of a pandemic, it articulated a distinctive understanding of how to promote this aim. The policy was not oriented toward traditional public health activities, whether sanitation and hygiene measures or biomedical interventions. It did not involve the production of knowledge about the disease per se—such as its prevalence, rate of spread, or severity. Rather, the policy focused on the systems underpinning social and economic life. As Newsom’s executive order put it, the “assets, systems, and networks” of the 16 infrastructure sectors listed in the federal guidance “are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect” on security, safety, or public health. At the heart of the essential worker policy was an assumption that the well-being of the collective depended on securing the continuous flow of resources through a set of vital, vulnerable systems. “The supply chain must continue,” stated Newsom’s order. As we will see, the policy built on an existing framework of emergency government, one that sought to ensure the continued function of critical systems in the event of future catastrophe.
Targeting essential facilities
This way of thinking about the security of the collective can be traced, at least in part, to early twentieth-century strategic reflection on the role of the airplane in modern war. In the era of total war, air war strategists argued that the continuous operation of a nation’s industrial-production complex—composed of power plants, rail networks, and key industrial facilities—was critical to its military power. The aim of air war should therefore be to disrupt the systems that were essential to the industrial economy of the enemy nation. As air power theorist William Sherman wrote in 1926, “industry consists of a complex system of interlocking factors, each of which makes only its allotted part of the whole,” and “this very quality of modern industry renders it vulnerable” to targeted attack.9William Sherman, Air Warfare (New York, 1926), cit. in Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff, “Vital Systems Security: Reflexive Biopolitics and the Government of Emergency,” Theory, Culture and Society 32, no.2 (2015): 19–51. Sherman argued that air power should target the enemy’s “system of supply”—the complex of industrial facilities, energy infrastructures, and transportation networks that underpinned a nation’s military power. In World War II, economists specializing in the flow of resources in an industrial economy worked with allied air force units to put this strategy of “precision bombing” into practice.10Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989More Info →
In the early Cold War, US national security planners became concerned that the Soviet Union would target key industrial facilities and essential services in a future attack. They transposed methods of understanding the “complex system of interlocking factors” underpinning the flow of resources in the national economy from air targeting and industrial mobilization to domestic vulnerability analysis.11Peter Galison points to the mirroring process through which civil defense experts applied the lessons of World War II strategic bombing to US urban planning. “War Against the Center,” Grey Room no. 4 (Summer 2001): 5–33. In response to this threat, mobilization planning began to focus on the postattack management of resources to ensure the survival of the population and the capacity for economic rehabilitation.12Stephen J. Collier and Andrew Lakoff, The Government of Emergency: Vital Systems, Expertise, and the Politics of Security (Princeton University Press, forthcoming) traces the relation of Cold War mobilization planning to contemporary emergency government. Such plans envisioned the structure of a future emergency government and listed the actions, in specific resource areas, that emergency government agencies would need to take in order to ensure the nation’s survival and recovery. Thus, “Mobilization Plan D-Minus,” completed in 1957, was organized according to eight “resource categories” in which emergency actions would be taken: telecommunications, food, housing, industrial production, manpower, raw materials, power and fuels, and transportation.13These resource categories were replicated—with the addition of health, water, and government operations—in the 1964 National Plan for Emergency Preparedness. Cold War preparedness specialists also understood that workers would be needed to operate services like transportation and electric power systems and to staff key industrial plants. To ensure the survival of sufficient personnel in the aftermath of a thermonuclear attack, they proposed building a national system of blast and fallout shelters and establishing large stockpiles of essential supplies, such as medicine and food.
While the impetus for investment in such nuclear preparedness efforts faded over the decades that followed, this framework for emergency government was gradually extended to address a range of other threats, including natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and eventually, pandemics.14For a discussion of the use of civil defense resources for other forms of disaster planning during the Cold War, see Scott Gabriel Knowles, The Disaster Experts: Mastering Risk in Modern America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). The task of planning for future emergencies was assigned to a series of different federal agencies where “all-hazards planning” was instituted as the basis for preparedness.15These agencies included the Office of Defense Mobilization of the 1950s, the Office of Emergency Preparedness in the early 1960s, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, established in 1979. Beginning in the mid-1990s, national security experts argued that, in response to new forms of vulnerability arising from dependence on information and communications technology, the federal government should undertake a major initiative on “critical infrastructure protection.” Over two decades later, the resulting initiative—in the form of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency—would spawn the federal government’s essential worker policy.“Reducing infrastructural vulnerability would require ‘coordinated effort within and between the private and public sectors,’ and a partnership between the federal government and state and local governments.”
The premise of the initiative was that “certain of our infrastructures are so vital that their incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our defense and economic security.” A presidential commission was charged to “study the critical infrastructures that constitute the life support systems of our nation, determine their vulnerabilities and propose a strategy for protecting them into the future.”16Critical Foundations: Protecting America’s Infrastructures: A Report of the President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection (October 1997). On the emergence of the field of critical infrastructure protection, see Myriam Anna Dunn and Kristian Soby Kristenson, eds., Securing the ‘Homeland’: Critical Infrastructure, Risk, and (In)Security (Routledge, 2008). In its final report, issued in 1997, the commission argued that government policy must “assure the availability and continuity of the critical infrastructures on which our economic security, defense, and standard of living depend.” Reducing infrastructural vulnerability would require “coordinated effort within and between the private and public sectors,” and a partnership between the federal government and state and local governments. The report identified eight critical systems—similar to those identified in Cold War mobilization planning—“whose incapacity or destruction would have a debilitating impact on our defense or economic security.”17The initial set of critical infrastructures were: telecommunications, electrical power, oil and gas, banking and finance, transportation, water supply, emergency services, and government services. And it proposed the establishment of an office that would “[o]versee and facilitate infrastructure assurance policy formation,” including risk assessment, integrating public and private sector perspectives, and proposing new infrastructure protection measures.
The Critical Infrastructure Protection program was eventually housed in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In 2006, DHS published the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (revised in 2013), which laid out a familiar vision of the dependence of social and economic life on the continued function of the nation’s vital systems. “Our national well-being depends upon secure and resilient critical infrastructure—those assets, systems and networks that underpin society,” stated the plan.18Department of Homeland Security, NIPP 2013: Partnering for Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, 2013. It warned that “[g]rowing interdependencies across critical infrastructure systems have increased the potential vulnerabilities to physical and cyber threats.” Given the limited federal role in regulating private sector infrastructural systems, the “primary mechanism” for advancing critical infrastructure protection would be voluntary collaboration between private sector operators and “their government counterparts.”
At around this time, a new threat came to the attention of the government’s emergency planners: Whether due to a bioterrorist attack or the emergence of a novel and deadly pathogen, public health and security experts argued, the nation was ill-prepared to deal with the onset of a catastrophic “biological incident.” It was necessary to prepare for the potential impact of such an incident on critical infrastructures. As the 2005 National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza put it, “[m]ovement of essential personnel, goods and services, and maintenance of critical infrastructure are necessary during an event that spans months in any given community.” DHS was charged to work with private sector operators in developing “continuity of operations plans that ensure essential services remain functional and essential goods remain available in the event of a pandemic.”19Homeland Security Council, National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, 2005. The agency developed a “biological incident annex” as the “organizing framework for responding and recovering from a range of biological threats” across the federal government.20Department of Homeland Security, Biological Incident Annex to the Response and Recovery Federal Interagency Operational Plans, 2017. This annex laid out a series of objectives in the event of a future public health emergency: securing infrastructure systems, restoring “transportation pathways to facilitate supply chains and the movement of people,” and facilitating the delivery of supplies critical to response and recovery. The federal role in the response would include “prioritization of medical countermeasure dispensing to critical infrastructure operators,” but there was no discussion, in these planning documents, of the question—which would become so critical during the Covid-19 pandemic emergency—of how decisions would be made about the classification of essential workers in the event of stay-at-home orders.“For critical analysts, the category of the “essential” could be understood as a new form of social classification, one that interacted in complex ways with existing forms of social inequality.”
With this background, we can see the March 2020 guidance on the identification of essential workers—and in particular, its emphasis on the need “to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily and that need to be able to operate resiliently” during the pandemic response—as part of a long trajectory of emergency planning in the United States. The guidance allowed for interpretive flexibility on the part of state officials, leading to a flurry of lobbying activity by operators of potentially critical infrastructures. From the perspective of those classified as “essential,” in turn, critical questions included first, whether one had the choice not to be exposed to risk, and second—if one remained on site—whether sufficient protection would be offered. For those infected on the job, there was the question of whether treatment would be accessible or compensation offered. Finally, for critical analysts, the category of the “essential” could be understood as a new form of social classification, one that interacted in complex ways with existing forms of social inequality. A mechanism that was put in place to reduce vulnerability at the level of the system had generated a novel form of risk at the level of individuals and communities—the risk of being classified as essential.
Banner photo: Paul Sableman/Flickr
→Valerie Strauss, “The Trump Administration Declared Teachers ‘Essential Workers.’ Here’s What that Means,” Washington Post, August 21, 2020.