Working Through Covid-19

“On the whole, employees are satisfied (7-in-10) with how their employers are responding to COVID-19”. This comes from the CIPD’s April analysis of the impact of Covid-19 on working lives.

However, the flip-side of this relatively positive statistic is that “A sizeable minority of those attending their normal workplaces (around 2-in-10) said they had not been adequately supported by their employer or are not satisfied with the health and safety measures in place throughout the pandemic.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has, therefore, demonstrably affected different people’s working lives in different ways – and this variation in experience can, at least, partly, be attributed to the requirements of different job sectors when it comes to attending one’s normal workplace.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has published its findings on coronavirus and key workers in the UK. It found that the greatest number of key workers (in descending order) work in the following sectors: health and social care (31% of the whole UK workforce); education and childcare (20%); utilities and communication; food and necessary goods (14%); transport.

HealthandWork wanted to speak to workers from these key sectors to find out more about life during the pandemic from the perspective of someone who does not have the option to work from home.

Emily, partner at Waitrose

At the start of the pandemic, because people were overwhelmed with all the new restrictions, there were some complaints about queues outside to limit numbers in the store. Customers who didn’t think the virus was a big deal would express how it was an overreaction to limit numbers. 

Other than that I haven’t seen any actual aggression, just the odd customer frustrated during the period when we had no flour or toilet roll. Some customers also get annoyed now if they come in without a face mask or an exempt badge and get asked to put a mask on.

As a whole all my colleagues were very welcoming of the restrictions (face masks, limiting customer numbers, etc.) as they understand the importance of them. 

We all started wearing face masks when it became a legal requirement for customers to wear them, as our managers believed it was hypocritical to make customers wear them if staff didn’t, and the majority of staff agreed. We had a lot of support from Waitrose, with all face masks, visors and hand sanitiser made available to every partner, and we had free meals and snacks for the whole of lockdown to keep morale high in the store.

However, from the government, I don’t believe we had a lot of support, really, on reflection. We had months where we didn’t have direction on whether to wear face masks and because it wasn’t obligatory, customers did not wear them. My colleagues all felt the government’s response on face masks was very delayed.

The major changes at work overall are more in terms of customer behaviour, with people shopping by themselves and people rushing to get their shop done to ensure they aren’t in the shop for too long – which is encouraged by the store.

Obviously, at the start people were bulk buying, which put a lot of strain on the store as we needed more staff to restock the shelves, but once restrictions on item purchases per person were put in place, that stopped being an issue. 

Now though, the shopping behaviour has pretty much gone back to normal, except for people wearing face masks, of course!

Raj, NHS doctor

I’m more than happy to share my views, however I’d like to do so through the lens of patients. I work with stroke patients and the pandemic has been detrimental to their outcomes.

We’ve tried to help with a local initiative in Yorkshire called Nerve Roots, which helps people who have had a stroke get into gardening to keep them active, which is beneficial to recovery.

We’re also working on a software solution for the problem of insufficient rehabilitation which has been compounded by the pandemic.

Hanif, train driver with Great Western Railway

During the [first] lockdown, we were able to ‘be spare’ from home. (Basically, some days we are spare drivers and are only called upon if/when things go wrong.) Usually, we would be at our depot for the duration of our spare shift. However, because of social distancing they didn’t want people hanging around unless absolutely necessary and they were also running a lot fewer trains, so there was a very slim chance of us being called upon when spare.

Essentially, we were still on full pay [but…] there was no more overtime available so everyone was working only their contracted hours.

It is clear that Emily falls into 70% of workers who are content with their company’s Covid-19 response, and that Raj felt that he was faring better than his patients whom he therefore felt deserved more of a mention than him, as their doctor. Hanif’s experience seems more mixed, having had to forego any opportunities for overtime pay.

While it is impossible to perform patient consultations, stack supermarket shelves and drive a train or bus from home, there are many who fall into the category of ‘key worker’ who can, in theory, work remotely.

For example, an office may require a skeleton staff to man the phones, but the majority of duties remain possible for completion remotely.

Deciding which employees to come into work on which days should be a simple case of implementing a rota, but this becomes more difficult when employees are travelling to work from different local authorities whose lockdown tiers and virus rates vary. 

This is, of course, no longer the case with a national lockdown in place, but it remains an example of how difficult it can be for employees and employers alike to navigate the grey areas left by ever-changing government policy as it is forced to respond to ever-evolving Covid data trends.

Based on the CIPD report and other statistics and news stories however, it is obvious that not all key workers attending their normal place of work have been as well protected as those who spoke to HealthandWork – potential evidence of the difficulties in legislating to protect those who are vulnerable during the pandemic.

For example, the ONS has found that male taxi drivers and chauffeurs in England and Wales have died from Covid-19 at a higher rate than health professionals.

The most high-profile case of abuse towards a key worker in the UK was that which brought about the deaf of Victoria station worker Belly Mujinga, who died from Covid-19 after having been spat on while on duty.

A Crown Prosecution Service review agreed with police, saying that “The absence of any persuasive medical or forensic evidence, together with inconclusive CCTV footage and inconsistent witness accounts [mean that] no criminal charges could be considered.”

A spokesperson for Unite, the union  who represent many of the UK’s transport workers, said:

Transport Workers have been majorly impacted by Covid- 19. Bus drivers have worked throughout the crisis, but have faced health and safety issues while carrying out their duties. Some have even lost their lives.

“In aviation, thousands of airport workers have lost their jobs, along with reductions in pay and working terms and conditions […] worsened by the lack of sector-specific Government support. 

“Throughout the sector, Unite have been engaging with members and employers to promote safe and secure workplaces, as well as the preservation of the maximum number of jobs. Many agreements have been reached which involve temporary pay reductions and so on, as an alternative to redundancies.”

The Lancet journal published a report in September titled ‘COVID-19 exacerbates violence against health workers’, which, in tandem with the attack on Belly Mujinga, highlights the risks for key workers in continuing to work through the Covid-19 pandemic.

It cites a statistic provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who, between February and July 2020, reported “600 incidents of [Covid-19-related] violence, harassment, or stigmatisation against health-care workers, patients, and medical infrastructure”.

This statistic was borne out on 3rd October when an NHS worker sustained fractures to his eye socket and was punched several times after trying to encourage three Underground passengers to put face masks on.

A recent survey carried out by Usdaw on the impact of Covid-19 on the workforce has led the union to formulate a proposed ‘new deal for workers’, which includes ‘Protection of Workers’ legislation.

In his executive summary at the beginning of the published survey, Usdaw General Secretary Paddy Lillis states that “many [of the] key workers [who are] working to keep our society going in this pandemic are low-paid with insecure hours and few employment rights”.

It is not just violence that needs tackling, but Statutory Sick Pay too, according to Usdaw, which it states as currently “not enough to survive on”. 

The union’s hope is that the Government, in particular, will “[wake up]” to the reality of working through Covid-19 and act.

This sentiment is shared by UNISON, the union representing care workers – another sector which has been underpaid and undervalued”, union General Secretary Christine McAnea explained.

She outlined the extent to which care workers are vulnerable – in the same way as transport, retail and healthcare workers:

 “Care work was challenging and emotionally draining before Covid. But the pandemic’s taken the pressure and anxiety to a whole new level.

“Staff have watched familiar faces in their care fall ill and die, while comforting distressed relatives unable to visit loved ones’ in their final hours.

“They’ve spent months without the proper safety kit, still struggle to get tested regularly and the financial worries are huge if they fall ill or need to isolate. There’s also the constant fear of catching the virus and taking it home.”

Luckily, as at Usdaw, UNISON has been working to elicit a response from the Government on the issue of care worker protection during the pandemic – both financial and in terms of safety in the workplace:

“Throughout the pandemic, UNISON has been signing up hundreds of care workers into membership, offering support and demanding change on their behalf from the highest levels of government.

“Only last week, UNISON formed the first ever care coalition with employers and former care ministers calling for 

a national care service so staff benefit from the same training, pay and conditions as workers in the NHS.

“The care sector has been ignored for far too long. The pandemic has made sure that can no longer be the case.”

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