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Supporting our Essential Infrastructure Workforce: A Post-Event Recap

The Brief
  • Last month, BPC held an event, “Strengthening our Essential Infrastructure Workforce,” to dive into the needs and perspectives of workers in three infrastructure sectors: energy, water and wastewater, and transportation.
  • We explored the unique workforce challenges each of these sectors is facing, and which may be exacerbated by COVID-19, as well as opportunities to invest in essential infrastructure workers once the worst of the public health crisis diminishes.
  • This post summarizes these challenges and outlines the attendant recommendations our panelists put forward.


In case you missed the event, you can watch the full discussion here.

Over the last few months, while many of us practiced social distancing and adhered to stay-at-home orders, essential workers worked around the clock to make sure we all have access to water, transit options, electricity, and internet service. Others ensured groceries and medicines were in stock and that our hospitals and healthcare workers had the protective equipment they needed.

However, providing these essential services has devastatingly put these workers at disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19. For example, across the country, one focus has been on the alarming number of transit system workers who contracted the virus and even died. Just in April, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority had 68 fatalities among its employees. Nearly 2,500 MTA employees tested positive for the virus and more than 4,000 needed to quarantine, which also led to staffing shortages. All these sectors have had to adjust to accommodate social distancing and safety concerns, confront worker absenteeism, and generally and dramatically alter the way they do business.

These sectors have also seen dramatic revenue losses—the result of plummeting transit ridership, household financial hardships that have led to missed bill payments, and declining sales and income tax revenue. According to Politico, the MTA is burning through $200 million every week during the coronavirus pandemic. Ridership plummeted over 90%, resulting in a $700-800 million loss in monthly revenue. The MTA received an initial $3.9 billion in aid in the federal government’s first stimulus package but most of that money is already gone, and the MTA is projecting a $16.2 billion deficit through fiscal year 2024. San Francisco has similarly seen a ridership decline and the agency predicts a $568 million drop in revenue over the next four years which has led to the suspension of half of the city’s bus lines. Many energy and water utilities put into place moratoriums on service disconnections (voluntarily or as a result of state orders) to protect customers, however any resulting nonpayment risks diminishing their ability to maintain operations and implement new worker safety procedures.

Given COVID-19’s dramatic impact on these critical infrastructure systems and, in turn, their importance to our economy, public health, and safety, it is more important than ever before to understand the current and future needs of our essential workers, particularly as local economies reopen and face spikes in COVID-cases. Below is a description of the unique workforce challenges each of these three sectors are facing, and which may be exacerbated by COVID-19, and our panelists’ perspectives and recommendations to protect essential workers through the crisis and invest in them once the immediate public health threat diminishes.

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Summary of Workforce Challenges

Water and Wastewater: Drinking water and wastewater systems must operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to source, treat, and convey safe drinking water to households, businesses, hospitals, and other customers, and then collect sewage and rainwater, treat it, and release it back into the environment. This requires constant monitoring of operating conditions (including water meters and gauges), collecting and testing water samples, purifying water, and much more. About 123,730 Americans are employed as system operators, just one component of our water workforce, and, of that number, over 75% work for local governments.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of water and wastewater operators is expected to shrink by 5% within the next decade as water utilities struggle to replace retiring operators, meet the demand for new skillsets, recruit from a limited number of technical training programs, and overcome a lack of interest among younger, prospective workers. These trends threaten the safety of our nation’s water systems and particularly their ability to serve small, rural, and other disadvantaged communities. For instance, there are over 41,000 public drinking water systems in the United States that serve fewer than 3,300 people, accounting for 83% of all systems. In these smaller systems, there may only be one water operator responsible for maintaining service. Issues arise when that one experienced worker retires—institutional knowledge is lost and a majority of utilities do not have proper succession planning processes.

Public Transportation: The transit and ground transportation sector currently employs 671,720 workers in the United States, including 75,860 intercity and transit drivers. Despite transit ridership increasing about 26% over the past two decades, the sector is facing several pressing challenges. As one example, the New York state comptroller’s office published a report revealing the grim financial state of the MTA, the nation’s largest transit system. Its debt has tripled within the past two decades to $35 billion while the agency has only completed a third of the projects in its 2015-2019 capital program. In 2019, the MTA board revealed a reorganization plan that would cut 2,700 jobs to save money and raise fares and tolls by 4%. New York’s experience exemplifies the widespread shortfalls in funding and training that have hampered transit agencies long before COVID-19. As the transportation workforce continues to age and new technologies emerge, the industry is emphasizing workforce training. However, the Federal Transit Administration currently provides just $9 million for transit workforce development assistance.

Energy: The U.S. energy sector employs 6.8 million people in a wide range of subsectors, from traditional oil and natural gas to energy efficiency design. New improvements in natural gas and renewable technologies are fueling growth while jobs in coal-fired generation have been decreasing. Across all energy sectors, however, employers are facing increased hiring difficulties for technical positions. According to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, 14% more employers found it difficult to find qualified workers this year compared to 2017. Technical training and certifications are essential to reversing this trend.

Panelist Perspectives

In “Strengthening our Essential Infrastructure Workforce,” a panel of experts shared their perspectives and experiences working on infrastructure workforce issues prior to COVID-19 and how these issues have worsened in the wake of the pandemic.

Issue #1: Workforce development. All three of our panelists expressed difficulties in their respective sectors regarding workforce development even before the pandemic. Hope Cupit, president and CEO of the Southeast Rural Community Assistance Project, revealed the challenge of attracting talent to rural regions that need licensed water and wastewater operators but cannot offer competitive pay. Billy Terry, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University, has seen the effects of a “silver tsunami” in the transit industry, as workers from the baby boomer generation begin retiring en masse. All panelists highlighted the difficulty in recruiting younger workers, in part because of a lack of understanding about the wide variety of roles and careers possible in each sector. For example, Terry emphasized the need for lawyers and finance professionals in the transit industry.

Issue #2: Safety and Protection. According to our panelists, states have struggled to obtain enough personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 crisis, and federal guidance from CISA has not been sufficient to address safety concerns. Jason Walsh, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, was critical of the Trump administration’s non-enforceable worker safety guidelines instead of an emergency standard that would have mandated specific safety measures. Cupit observed that her workers are fearful of not knowing what to expect and lack information on paid sick leave laws. In the transit industry, Terry emphasizes that both transit workers and riders are uncomfortable traveling in small, enclosed spaces with little guarantee of appropriate social distancing or mask-wearing. Furthermore, essential workers are far more likely to rely on transit to get to work, which disproportionately exposes them to the virus. Without appropriate funding for PPE and sanitation efforts, infrastructure workers will continue to be at a heightened risk of infection.

Issue #3: Reopening the Economy. As workplaces adjust to the “new normal,” infrastructure sectors must adopt new strategies to address safety and liability concerns. Cupit’s organization continues to hire new workers through a strictly online process and prepares PPE kits for them. Her team has successfully navigated in-house safety measures but would also like to see more consistent guidance from Congress. In the transit sector, Terry said many local agencies are testing workers—but not all. Other challenges for the industry cannot be addressed as easily. Terry explained that crucial in-person training for transportation workers had been put on a full pause, placing further pressure on the shrinking workforce.

Issue #4: Federal Response. The CARES Act provided needed support to struggling infrastructure sectors, including $25 billion for transit agencies across the country. Terry emphasized that these funds can be used to cover operating costs such as wages and protective equipment—not just capital expenditures. Walsh discussed how the Act has also allocated an additional $900 million for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help low-income households from falling behind on their bills given coronavirus-related job and income disruptions. Despite these measures, our panelists agreed that more should be done to specifically protect frontline workers and infrastructure industries. For example, the water industry received no direct financial assistance from the CARES Act, which has left both utilities and ratepayers in a precarious position. For the water workforce and beyond, Cupit would like to see more testing and better paid sick leave. Walsh called for congressional action in response to ongoing concerns over employer liability for sick workers. He recommends strict legal requirements that would clearly define the role of employers in protecting their workers—a “good faith” effort should not be enough to provide employers with legal immunity

Key Panelist Recommendations

As Congress considers various infrastructure bills and additional COVID-19 relief measures, including surface transportation reauthorizations and a Water Resources Development Act, our panelists shared their key workforce-related priorities:

Federal Funding: According to Terry, the transit industry needed federal assistance to cover operating costs before the pandemic, but now, more will be needed to maintain new operation methods such as testing, sanitation, and capital projects. Terry also stressed the importance of funding for worker training, which is currently included in the Democrat-sponsored Moving Forward Act. Such trainings will be especially important as transit agencies adopt new technologies. He would also like to see funding for research as part of the next surface transportation reauthorization package. Cupit echoed calls for more educational opportunities and workforce development funding. In addition, she would like to see a water rate protection program modeled on LIHEAP to ensure low-income households have access to water services.

Hazard Pay and Paid Sick Leave. In response to COVID-19, Senate Democrats proposed the “Heroes Fund,” which would provide up to $25,000 in hazard pay to essential workers. The panelists agreed with the notion of hazard pay, but Cupit thought guaranteed coverage of medical expenses for infrastructure workers who are exposed to COVID-19 was the priority.

Lasting COVID-19 Impacts. Beyond these specific assistance measures, our panelists predicted enduring changes in policy and workforce needs. For example, Terry emphasized the need to develop more advanced systems of transportation cleaning that would serve a permanent role in the industry. On the administrative side, many individuals will likely continue to work remotely after the pandemic. However, some essential roles will still require workers to interact with colleagues and customers, so exposure to the virus is still a major concern.

Moving Forward

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our essential infrastructure workers have consistently provided the services that support our everyday wellbeing. Congress must now step up and pass bipartisan legislation to support this workforce directly. Our panelists made clear the repercussions of sidelining these crucial workers and offered their policy solutions for consideration. Without continuous funding for training and safety precautions, critical infrastructure industries will face disastrous shortfalls in the coming years, and certainly, when the next disaster hits.

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