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They made the biggest sacrifices - but what will work be like for people whose jobs never stopped during the pandemic?

In the new ‘flexible’ world of work, where will people whose jobs don’t allow them to work from home fit in?

COVID-19 CHANGED the way many of us worked overnight.

But it didn’t fully change it for everybody. 

The supermarket workers, the meat plant workers, the frontline healthcare workers – they still went into work, and have done throughout the entire pandemic. 

Many people who worked in factories, warehouses and pharmaceutical firms also kept getting up every day and going to work like before.

Others had to stop working altogether, like construction workers for various periods. The worst-hit industries such as hospitality and the arts/live performance sectors have been largely shut down for over a year. 

“We didn’t give out,” one creche manager told The Journal. “We just got on with it. We’ve had to. Even when there were thousands of cases a day, we went to work.”

The Journal’Good Information Project has so far looked at what the world of work will look like for people who can work from an office in their job. We’ve seen that there’s an expectation they can continue to work from home at least some of the time when we’ve made it beyond the pandemic. 

Their jobs will offer a new flexibility and tantalising promises of a work-life balance better than what had existed before the pandemic.

But there are large swathes of the workforce that cannot look forward to this new-found flexibility. 

So many jobs still require you to be on site. Most factory workers can’t do their jobs remotely. Delivery drivers can’t work from a laptop in their bedroom. Most hospitality workers can’t have a hybrid model of three days in work and two days at home. 

There is certainly a recognition that workers on the frontlines in the pandemic have made enormous sacrifices during the pandemic, with unions and politicians calling for proper acknowledgement of this work through extra leave, more pay or other supports.

But there are fears among workers that little will change for them in the new flexible world of work. And, as a result, there are concerns it’ll be difficult to retain people in such industries if the option of that better work-life balance is out there.

There are also fears that a gulf will open up between workers on the frontline – who’ve been putting themselves at risk during Covid – and those “at home behind a computer” as one warehouse manager put it. The section of workers in some of the jobs that never stopped often earn little money and have little job security

‘Just carry on as if nothing was happening’

Mark* works as a warehouse manager for a large retailer. While the shops were closed for large periods from March last year, the company was still fulfilling online orders.

He told The Journal that aside from social distancing guidelines and mask-wearing requirements that were introduced over time, he and other staff in the warehouse were “just told to carry on as usual as if nothing was happening”.

“When the retail store was receiving emails about how to work from home or cope with isolation, the warehouse workers were just an afterthought,” he said.

“I was glad to be working but always on edge knowing my parents were at home and were high risk while I was working in a warehouse where Covid could easily be caught.”

Mark said that it was a “bit too on the nose” for he and his colleagues to be praised as frontline workers when they were in fact mostly fulfilling orders for non-essential retail stock. 

He said: “We were being told our efforts were essential to keeping the company afloat while upper management sat at home in safety behind a computer.”

Going forward, Mark doesn’t believe his situation will change. Online retail for his company is booming so his job will largely stay the same. 

An improvement in pay and conditions – or even a bonus to acknowledge their efforts during the pandemic – would go some way to addressing this. But he’s not hopeful.

“I think we will be treated the same as usual,” he said. “The warehouse will keep the bits of Covid compliance and work it into everyday life. Not much else will change.” 

On the frontline

“Covid has shown an awful lot up,” according to Louise*, who is a homecarer. Very little has changed for her and her colleagues throughout the pandemic. 

“We’re on the very frontline,” she told The Journal. “Since the pandemic, nothing has changed as far as the job itself is concerned. That service has had to stay.”

Louise said that infection control was already built into the way she operated given that she goes from house to house offering care to those who need it. A demand from staff for more PPE was eventually met and the service has carried on since. But not without taking a toll for these workers on the frontline. 

“A lot of the girls were afraid,” she said. “We were going to people’s houses. It’s a delicate, sensitive area going into a person’s home. It’s a very personal thing. A lot of people were afraid. My husband was afraid for me.”

The kind of flexibility that other workers have been able to avail of during Covid hasn’t been possible for homecarers like Louise. She’s aware it may be a problem in future when it comes to attracting staff to stay in the sector. 

“We were going house to house all through this,” she said. “When we had to go into the office to collect PPE, it was like as if there was this massive plague out there that we could be bringing in with us. We’re the ones out morning, noon and night. 

But then it’s not the same for some of the office staff, or area managers. They were able to work from home some of the time too. Our offices weren’t always manned. It was difficult to turn around and explain to them what we had to face. 
Louise thinks that this divide will make people think twice about remaining in the job, when they can see other options that are available. 
It will be very hard. There are girls coming to the end of their tether. As soon as they get another [job] option, they’re gone. It’s demoralising. The only you get your job satisfaction is with your client. It’s not coming from elsewhere.

In the specific situation facing Louise and her colleagues, the long-awaited implementation of a new rostering system to relieve the pressure would be the boost they need to find a better work-life balance. 

“They can make our jobs far more attractive to people if we have a proper structure in our schedule,” she said. “It would be a big thing in the community to have that continuity of care, because we’d look after them no matter what. But solve the roster issues and it’d be a huge relief to us all.”

‘Working from home isn’t for me’

Others have seen the options that office workers have had and are less impressed by them – and have other concerns instead. Rachel* is a nurse at a Dublin hospital. Working on the frontline throughout the pandemic, she’s well aware the kind of flexibility that others may have in future isn’t possible in her line of work.

“I obviously work a job with no option to work from home,” she told The Journal. “Initially I was envious of people getting to work from home. I could see my brother getting out of bed 10 minutes before work started and thinking ‘god, I’d love that’.

But then I noticed he and others I know would be working well into the evening on a regular basis. When my shift ends, I actually can finish for the day and go home. Being in work is great in that it’s an excuse to leave the house and see people other than family. 

Asked if she’d consider changing her career in future for a more flexible kind of job, she said she doesn’t imagine that happening at the moment but jokes: “I consider changing career every time my alarm goes off.”

Eilish Balfe is an early years educator and manager of a creche in Ratoath in Meath.

“I’m used to this,” she told The Journal. “I loved going back in January. Even when we opened our doors and there were over 8,000 cases a day and I thought how am I going to do this?

“But it gave me that sense of purpose. Get up, shower, make-up on, into work. I’m one of those people who has to be busy all the time. Working from home isn’t for me. I wouldn’t like it.

Balfe said that at various times throughout the pandemic, although childcare centres weren’t permitted to open, she was able to mind the children of some frontline workers at home to allow them to go to work. 

With creches re-opening last autumn and open again now, she said that she had no personal fear for herself going to work but was worried at the thought of Covid-19 being spread at the creche. 

“The fear was more of it coming in,” she said. “If someone were to bring it in, they wouldn’t mean to. And then the knock-on effect of that for vulnerable family members and staff. That’s been a big fear throughout. How could you live with yourself if that happened?”

Balfe relishes her job day-to-day and added that parents had been very grateful for the support throughout.

But there is a fear around the retention of staff into the future, especially in a sector with low pay for staff on the ground. 

“I think we might struggle [to keep staff],” she said. “We’re already struggling with staff. Our job is so low paid as well. People in this sector struggle to put their own children in childcare because they can’t afford it.

We do so much admin in our job anyway, it would entice people away for a job in that kind of area. 

She described a recent hire who’d been on minimum wage prior to joining her creche, despite having over a decade of experience in the sector. 

“I personally think the childcare sector shouldn’t be for profit,” Balfe added. “It should be nationalised.

One thing the pandemic has shown is the importance of our sector, and why we have to invest in it. I really think that childcare and early years is the invisible string that holds the economy together. I felt that I have to open my doors to help keeping this country going.

Post-covid work

As well as the industries that have remained open to a degree, some employers in the industries still blighted by Covid have concerns that their sectors may find it harder to attract people in the post-pandemic world. 

Publicans and bar managers who spoke to The Journal around the time they were permitted to re-open before Christmas said that that staffing may be an issue in future.

With large numbers of premises closed for over a year, many staff have moved into different industries and taking their skills elsewhere.

The years of experience in various aspects of the trade appeals to employers in other areas. Whenever hospitality businesses are permitted to re-open again, they say supports will be needed to ensure these essential skills and experience aren’t lost to the industry forever.

And it’s not just hospitality. Megan Best runs Native Events and is the operations manager for the popular Body & Soul festival.

She told The Journal last month that a lot of the crew, staff and industry knowledge from the closed-down sector have now “dissipated into other industries”. 

“It’s important now to try and capture a snapshot of the knowledge out there,” she said. “When they go out into other industries, they’re welcomed with open arms. And the appeal for them then is stable jobs with a 9-5 income. They’re probably not going to come back into the events industry.”

In a post-Covid world, the gap between the new flexible world that some will enjoy may contrast sharply with the reality for others in the sectors that never shut down and in some that shut down entirely.

Given the essential nature of the jobs that so many of them fulfill, they’ll be seeking to make sure they’re not left behind. 

*Some names have been changed at the individual’s request

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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