As the world continues to slog through the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, it is impossible to escape the phrase “essential worker.” We hear the phrase peppered into news reports and conversations so frequently that it has become a received truth – that is, something we largely accept without stopping and thinking critically about its meaning. But what precisely does “essential worker” mean, and to whom does it apply?
A Google search for “essential worker” retrieves results in the millions, so there is no quick and easy way to definitively navigate the boggy question of who an essential worker is. Fortunately for Illinoisans, Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Executive Order 2020-10, issued in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, helps provide some clarity. Section 12 of the Executive Order defines “Essential Businesses and Operations” as healthcare and public health operations, human services operations, essential government functions, essential infrastructure, and a swathe of other businesses, including – but not limited to – grocery stores, pharmacies, food and beverage production, animal shelters, charities and social services, newspapers, radio stations, gas stations, financial institutions, hardware stores, building and construction trades, mail and delivery services, laundry services, restaurants, transportation, day cares, residential facilities, and a litany of other entities – the full list is available here.
Defining what an essential worker is more than just an academic exercise – it has real-life consequences for those workers and their families. This is most especially evident with the advent of the “COVID presumption” the General Assembly added to the Illinois Occupational Diseases Act last year and updated last week. This creates a rebuttable presumption that those essential workers covered in the Executive Order who contract COVID-19 did so in the workplace – provided that their work requires them to encounter members of the general public or to work in locations of more than 15 employees 1. For fuller context, in 2020 Governor Pritzker signed into law HB2455, which created this rebuttable presumption; however, this presumption was only applicable to cases in which a diagnosis of COVID-19 was made on or after March 9, 2020 and on or before December 31, 20202. On January 13, 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed HB4276, which extends this “COVID presumption” to diagnoses through June 30, 2021.