RTW Showcase: Defining Essential Workers

Tasha Patterson@Work

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Redefining “Essential Worker” in Light of COVID-19 Risk Reduction Requests

By Coy Hillstead, Ed.D

Assistant Director, Human Resources
University of Minnesota

Essential workers have been at the forefront of the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic response since March 2020. However, what defines essential is a mixed bag, often with no legal definition outside of “guidance” or “recommendations” used by public entities or professional organizations to address the issue. As a result, employers often have no clear “bright lines” for decisions that may expose the organization and employees to health or litigation risks.

When workers perform some of these essential functions, does that make them essential workers, whether or not their job has been legally defined as essential? Many organizations have grappled with this question and found themselves unprepared to properly document such requirements in job descriptions. As a result, identifying “essential workers” is often addressed in a reactive manner and not proactively. Organizations caught in this position find themselves at a disadvantage in reacting to unusual new work functions that have become critical during the pandemic.

Some professionals wonder if this discussion is necessary; isn’t there a clear distinction between essential and non-essential workers? At a surface level, jobs such as police officers, grocery store workers, and nurses are commonly perceived as essential because their work tasks interact with and support the general public with critical needs. Other professionals such as accountants, software developers, or data analysts are commonly perceived as non-essential or at least capable of working remotely using email and other technologies.

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