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We all think we know an “essential worker” when we see one — health care workers, firefighters and police officers. We even have a new appreciation for the grocery clerks who stock shelves.

But the Brookings Institution says there is a larger group of essential workers who are quietly at risk of losing their jobs.

The public policy organization says 23.2 million “essential workers” are employed by state and local governments and thus could end up on the unemployment line unless Congress approves financial relief for state and local governments.

According to Brookings, some of these workers already have been laid off:

“With tax revenues rapidly disappearing, a quick economic recovery out of reach, and no choice but to balance their budgets, public officials have already laid off at least 1.5 million of these workers.”

Hundreds of jobs meet the definition of “essential,” according to Brookings. They include:

Teachers
Firefighters
Social workers
Construction workers
Bus drivers
Highway maintenance workers
Water treatment operators
Protective service officers

Brookings says it used a combination of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data and Department of Homeland Security guidelines to arrive at a total number of “essential workers” — 90 million as of 2018, according to the most recent data available.

So, state and local governments employ roughly one-quarter of all those workers — a higher share than any other essential industry, according to Brookings.

Brookings is urging Congress to act and protect these jobs. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $1 trillion in COVID-19 relief for state and local governments as part of the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act. The Senate has not acted on that bill yet, although leaders from both chambers of Congress have said they are negotiating another coronavirus relief bill.

According to Brookings:

“State and local governments are walking a fiscal tightrope — and losing their balance. If Congress allows them to fall, millions of essential workers will tumble down with them, and communities across the country will face an even deeper, longer-term economic crisis.”

Protecting these jobs is also a matter of racial justice, Brookings says. Black and Latino or Hispanic workers make up 33.8% of frontline essential positions in government, it says. “Frontline” refers to jobs where the worker is physically required to show up in order to perform their jobs, Brookings says.

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