DOD's Ellen Lord names contractors as part of nation's critical infrastructure

DOD acquisition chief Ellen Lord has declared that contractors in the defense industrial base are part of the nation's critical infrastructure sector and can continue to report to work during the pandemic.

Employees of defense companies and suppliers can still report to work on their normal schedules even if local and state governments tell citizens they have to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a Friday memo to industry obtained by Washington Technology, Defense Department acquisition chief Ellen Lord wrote that the defense industrial base is part of the nation's "critical infrastructure sector” and includes companies and their subcontractors that provide products and services under contract to the Defense Department.

“The DIB sector is defined as the worldwide industrial complex that enables research and development as well as design, production, delivery and maintenance of military weapons systems/software systems, subsystems, and components or parts, as well as purchased services to meet U.S. military requirements,” the memo reads.

Lord’s memo does not directly address the deluge of questions contractors have raised about options for remote work, particularly for those that provide IT and other professional services to agencies. Also not addressed yet and still unclear is how payments to contractors will proceed as more people contract the virus and work gets disrupted.

Several of the largest industry trade associations representing government contractors have advocated for clear guidance on those payments, as well as flexibility on the part of agencies to make adjustments in contracts if companies are limited in their ability to perform work.

The Aerospace Industries Association trade group's executive committee on Friday sent a letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper that asked for more uniform and consistent guidance on designations of what is considered essential work. AIA also called for moves to speed up payments to companies and greater flexibility regarding contracts if businesses are limited in how they can perform the work.

Wes Hallman, senior vice president of strategy and policy at the trade group National Defense Industrial Association, told WT in a phone interview after the release of Lord's memo that he expects more guidance from the government to be on the way as "we're only now starting to understand what some of the implications and ramifications are."

"I expect a bit of venture learning over the next week to four weeks as this is going on," Hallman said. "There's no definitive date on the calendar for when we're done with this, we don't know what we don't know yet."

Defense contractor employees that are not considered part of the essential critical infrastructure workforce are those who perform tasks such as providing office supplies, recreational support or lawn care.

Defense is one of 16 sectors that are deemed by the Homeland Security Department as part of the U.S.’ critical infrastructure alongside others such as energy, health care, IT, transportation, financial, water and communications.