States Assert Authority to Deem Workers Essential
State government officials say they have the authority to designate state employees as essential during the coronavirus pandemic, with some moving to override shelter-in-place restrictions enacted by local municipalities.
Utility regulators also are weighing in to have states deem utility workers at all government levels essential to support critical infrastructure needs.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves overrode several public-health measures that local authorities had implemented to open department stores, churches, offices, manufacturing and others as essential businesses.
The order came after the city of Tupelo enacted a shelter in place order until April 17 and other municipalities followed suit.
The governor says the order was meant as a “statewide floor” for local governments to follow.
Construction and construction related services including skilled building trades, construction firms and “professionals for maintaining essential infrastructure, are exempt from any limitations across the state, Reeves said.
Robyn Tannehill, mayor of Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi, said the governor’s directive caused confusion across the state, adding that most restrictions implemented by her city are still in place.
Similarly, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy overrode a strict shelter in place edict for residents of Bergen County to reduce its high rate of COVID-19 cases. Murphy said in a press briefing last week that “we will override local and county actions to make sure we are consistent in our approach.”
In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton said local governments cannot restrict the movement of employees of any state agency or state contractor that provides governmental services.
Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia ordered non-essential businesses to close, but deemed coal mining an essential business. Pennsylvania also reopened mining sites after closing them temporarily.
“I’m going to tell you, without any question, that without coal-fired generation, our country would be in big trouble,” West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told a press conference.
Meanwhile, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners on March 26 urged states to designate utility workers as essential.
They noted that the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security designated a list of essential workers that included those in energy, water supply and wastewater treatment, but it omitted power grid operators and pipeline operators.
The federal government grants authority to states to add to the list of designated essential workers.
“Every aspect of responding to the pandemic depends on reliable utility systems,” said NRUC President Brandon Presley, who said the two operator categories should be designated as essential workers.
States define non-essential businesses differently. Arizona and Oklahoma non-essential businesses are closed in counties with known COVID-19 cases. But in Missouri, only casinos have been shut, while only gyms are closed in Florida.