What it is like to be an essential worker during a pandemic

Every Thursday at 8pm, the UK claps for the NHS and its essential workers but many are on low wages.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said that key workers are being “overlooked and underpaid”. Meanwhile Liberal Democrats have called that frontline workers should receive £29-a-day reward.

Essential workers are individuals who have been recognised by the government as critical to the continued running of the country, ranging from shop workers to delivery drivers and the NHS.

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How much are they paid?

In the UK the average salary for all full-time employee’s is £35,423

The Office of National Statistics’ annual earnings survey provides us with a detailed picture of key workers’ pay, as well as higher and lower pay brackets.

While professions such as doctors, train drivers and school teachers earn this amount or more per year, many others in full time work are being paid less.

Nurses, bus drivers and care workers are amongst those affected.

Although working out average salaries is not an exact science with many factors affecting pay – like overtime, part-time work or extra money for working in an expensive area.

For example, low income employees are more likely to work part-time or hour-by-hour. This means many will not earn anything close to their occupation’s full-time average income.

Who decides their pay?

The government decides the pay of anyone whose job is directly funded by taxes in the public sector.

Police officers, nurses, civil servants and teachers all have representatives who work with the government department unions and other groups to come up with yearly recommendations on pay for these workers.

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Is it worth it?

Many workers are underpaid for risking their lives during these difficult times and are often not provided with the appropriate equipment to protect them against the virus.

The Canterbury Hub spoke to NHS nurses Jane Howard and Anne Day about how they feel about their day-to-day work lives and how they are coping. Due to their request, their names have been changed in order to remain anonymous.

How does the current COVID19 situation make you feel?

Jane: “The current situation makes me feel worried, not for myself, but for my family. I’m so worried about bringing this virus home to my family. As it has lasted such a long time, I also feel quite lonely as I can’t cuddle and kiss my family as I normally would do prior to covid.”

Anne: “It makes me worry about my family, especially my parents who are quite elderly and don’t have a carer. It also makes me really worry about my children. I try to disinfect myself and my clothing before I come home but still, the risk is always there.”

Do you feel safe at work?

Jane: “There is always an air of uncertainty as we have been given different info on how to protect ourselves over the weeks. Originally we were only wearing PPE for suspected/ covid positive patients but now we wear it for all patient contact. There is a worry that stocks will run low especially with theatre gowns, so we are having to wear gowns that are not as protective so that we don’t run out.”

Anne: “I actually feel very safe at work. Our doors are locked so any patients attending can be screened for symptoms before being allowed entry. We have sourced our own facemasks and also been donated a lot. I feel more at risk in supermarkets than I do at work.”

How chaotic is it compared to normal?

Jane: “It’s chaotic from the point of view of the unknown. We are not used to dealing with situations where we have to put ourselves first (getting dressed up in PPE ) before we attend to our patients.

Do you take any precautions before you come home from work?

Jane: “I have to change from my normal clothes to uniform / scrubs when I get to work and when I come home. The trust haven’t got facilities to wash our work clothes/ scrubs for us , so we have to bring them home and wash them ourselves. 60 degree wash, isolated from our families clothes. I change my work shoes and leave them in my car, I don’t bring them in the house.”

Anne: “Normally I change into my work clothes alone in a changing room and store my normal clothing in a bag in a locker. When I go home I often change into my normal clothes at work but disinfect myself as much as I can. I have a separate laundry hamper for my work clothes and I always make sure my children aren’t in the room when I put the washing on.”

How are you keeping your spirits up?

Jane: “There has been great community support. The local gurdwara send 200 meals every day to the hospital for us. An ex patient has set-up a JustGiving page and from the funds we have been bought Domino’s pizzas which are delivered to the hospital.

“Schools and local businesses have donated goggles, face shields that they have either made or bought.
We have been donated hair bands to hold masks in place so that your ears don’t get sore, home made scrubs and uniform bags … all these kind donations keep your spirits up as it makes you feel appreciated.”
Anne: “The support from the community has been amazing. Our surgery ran out of face masks and a local lady offered to make us cotton ones for free. We also wear visors made by a local man who has kindly donated twice so we could share them with our local pharmacy and healthcentre staff”.

Has the situation made you appreciate certain things more?

Jane: “I think it gives you a grounding, you appreciate the simple things in life, that your family is safe and well. There is a general feeling of comradeship between your work colleagues as you recognise how your team work saves lives.”

Anne: “I really miss being able to touch my family, it’s been really hard having to keep myself separated from my children. I also find not being able to see my friends difficult. We video call regularly but it’s just not the same. Also I do not like having to queue for the shop. I understand it’s necessary but still, it’s frustrating.”

Any moments of kindness you’ve witnessed?

Jane: “All the donations as I’ve already discussed. The clapping on Thursday nights makes me emotional … and makes me feel proud that I work for the NHS.”

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Another sector of key workers are retail workers. Charlotte Brundle is just one of the millions of those working in supermarkets to provide people with the essential foods they need in order to survive.
When asked about how she feels at work she said: “Usually before the customers come in (I begin work at 6am) I don’t feel particularly unsafe, however when the supermarket is full I feel uneasy.
“It’s hard, nay impossible, to adhere to the government policy of a 2 meter distance. Furthermore the 1- way travel system protection policy is not being adhered to which means no extra protection is actually practically in place, just in theory. Additionally the more I listen to the news, the less safe I feel working in a supermarket when everyone else is being advised to stay home.”
Please ensure that you are following government guidelines on social distancing and staying at home in order to support our essential workers.