How to Identify Your Community’s Essential Workers in Local Quarantine Orders

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The Department of Homeland Security will continue to release updated guidance on “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce” for cities and states to use – please refer to their website for the latest.


As cities and counties work to encourage social distancing and flatten the transmission curve during COVID-19, we are equally invested in ensuring that our critical infrastructure and public health support system can responsibly keep moving. To assist with clarifying who the essential infrastructure workforce is, on March 19, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released guidance on how to identify and support these workers.  

How to Define Essential Workers 

On March 16, the President issued Coronavirus Guidance for America, stating 

If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.  

To assist in defining this essential workforceunder the direction of the DHS, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published a memorandum of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers. This guidance has examples to help state and local officials as they work to protect their communities while ensuring continuity of functions critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security. The CISA list includes the following 16 categories:  

  • Communications 
  • Chemical  
  • Critical Manufacturing 
  • Commercial Facilities 
  • Dams 
  • Defense Industrial Base 
  • Emergency Services 
  • Energy 
  • Food and Agriculture 
  • Financial 
  • Government Facilities 
  • Information Technology 
  • Healthcare & Public Heath 
  • Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste 
  • Transportation Systems 
  • Water 

Guidance Cities Should Build On 

CISA’s is a guidance list and a place to start for local communities. As response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic are locally executed, state-managed, and federally supported, this list is advisory in nature. It is not a federal directive or standard in and of itself.  

The CISA list should inform critical infrastructure community decision-making to determine the sectors, sub-sectors, segments, or critical functions that should continue normal operations, appropriately modified to account for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) workforce and customer protection guidance.  

How to Build Your City’s Essential Workers List 

  1. Start with the CISA List and Add Locally Specific Roles and Responsibilities  
    Use CISA’s list of identified sectors and workers in critical infrastructure functions as a starting point. Consider what locally specific industries and roles will keep your critical infrastructure moving. Keep in mind that all decisions should appropriately balance public safety while ensuring the continued delivery of critical infrastructure services.
  2. Consider Essential Workers Traveling Through Your Community
    Community leaders should be careful to consider the necessary workers both in your town and those who may simply be moving through your town, such as delivery vehicles for food, medical and emergency response supplies. Maintaining normal freight operations with precautions will be essential to restoring economic activity and ensuring shelves stay stocked to prevent true shortages and disruptions of far more than toilet paper. An example of local workers who may not be reflected in these CISA categories is local community support organizations and food delivery for individuals that cannot leave their homes. 
  3. Determine How to Communicate Internally and Externally About Essential Workers
    It’s imperative that communities communicate both internally and externally about who your essential workers are and to explain the allowances being made for them to continue their work. It may also be helpful to coordinate with others in your region regarding how you can support essential workers. Consider providing essential critical infrastructure workers with a way to identify themselves to assist law enforcement officers in enforcing local orders. 

Share Your City’s Input with DHS and NLC  

CISA has committed to updating its guidance on “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers” as the nation’s response to COVID-19 evolves. You can submit input to CISA.CAT@cisa.dhs.gov and questions@nlc.org. You can also submit how you might use the CISA list, so the federal government can develop a repository of use cases for broad sharing across the country.  

About the Author: Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.