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Key Workers At Breaking Point

Public sector key workers are some of the most undervalued, overworked and poorly paid people in Britain – it’s no surprise that one in five of them are considering packing in their jobs.

Credit: sdominick / Getty Images

During the first peak of the Covid pandemic, members of the public were encouraged to stand on our doorsteps with pots and pans to clap and cheer for our key workers. Even the prime minister was a regular Thursday night fixture outside Downing Street, cheering along with others in a smiling display of support.

Now the cheers have died down and the claps have subsided, though, the bleak situation that has long been facing key workers in the public sector is more obvious than ever. New polling conducted by YouGov for the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has found that one in five of those key workers in the public sector is now ‘actively considering’ quitting and changing professions.

Of these workers, over half (57 percent) say it’s because they feel undervalued in their work. More than two in five (43 percent) say it’s because the pay is too low. Over a third (35 percent) say it’s because of excessive workloads.

Public sector workers’ pay and conditions were already issues long before the pandemic, but the stresses and inequalities of eighteen months of Covid made things worse. The early days of the outbreak saw workers putting themselves at risk in unsafe environments with a lack of personal protective equipment supplied to them by the government. Workloads increased massively, with no additional pay to match it; instead, Chancellor Rishi Sunak issued a pay freeze on most public sector workers and gave NHS workers a derisory 3 percent pay rise – one that doesn’t even apply to all staff. The TUC’s analysis of public sector pay shows that pay has actually fallen across various workplaces since 2010: a nurse’s pay is down by £2,469, a care worker’s by £1,490, and a teacher’s by £2,003.

Throw a decade—and longer—of deliberate, ideological underfunding into the mix, and the public sector is already creaking under the huge number of unfilled vacancies. The TUC has called the contributing factors a ‘toxic mix’ of low pay, excessive workloads, and a broader lack of recognition, which is pushing key workers and the services in which they serve to breaking point.

Anna* quit her job as a secondary school teacher a few months ago, she tells Tribune, explaining that the pandemic saw her working more than ever before. ‘We always had to set different online lessons for students who were self-isolating and be on hand to help them with their classwork, so I was teaching online and in person every week,’ she says.

Despite most of her work being doable from home, teaching staff in Anna’s school were forced in until the NEU stepped in and the headteacher backed down. Staff were also told to delete the NHS app after being pinged through colleagues who had tested positive for Covid-19. ‘We were advised not to discuss it,’ Anna explains. ‘We definitely felt disposable.’

The lack of precautions soon began to impact Anna’s mental health. ‘I felt as if I was just living to work in an unsafe environment for people who didn’t care if we or our families got ill.’ It was this disregard that eventually pushed her to leave teaching altogether.

A teaching assistant in a senior school, Sam* is in the process of handing in their notice and leaving their job. Like many, their school was kept open for the children of key workers, and they ran extra sessions for students who needed additional support. When Sam and the rest of their team asked for a pay rise or a promotion to accommodate this extra workload, they were refused.

Sam tells Tribune that they feel teaching assistants and school support staff have been forgotten about, despite the crucial role they play in keeping schools running. ‘I love my job, but I can’t do the unpaid extra hours or deal with the complete lack of support,’ they say. ‘I had to take two days off last week because of stress. This job has massively impacted my physical and mental health.’

Natasha* works in the NHS as a musculoskeletal practitioner, and she’s planning on quitting her job in January. Despite being in the Health Service for a decade, she no longer feels there’s a future in it for her.

‘The pandemic definitely increased our workloads as patients still had to be seen, and primary care still had to be 100 percent accessible, but all hospital-based services effectively came to a halt and concentrated on their wards only,’ she tells Tribune, adding that the structure of the healthcare system, the constant underfunding, and the bureaucracy will likely push many more out of the NHS after her.

Stories like those of Anna, Sam, and Natasha are far from uncommon, and it’s as a result of that fact that the TUC is now calling on the government to prioritise key worker pay and public services funding in next week’s Autumn Spending Review.

‘After years of our key workers being underpaid and our public services underfunded, this pandemic has to be a turning point,’ said the TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady. ‘The prime minister’s promise of a high wage economy is nothing short of farcical while his government continues to hold down public sector pay.’

While the Covid pandemic was putting public sector key workers through unimaginable hardships, it proved to the rest of us the extent of our dependence on them. Before the pandemic, according to the TUC, there were already 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, and 112,000 vacancies in social care. Those huge numbers make it clear that neither can afford to lose more people, and that increased losses will only make the country more vulnerable to future shocks – but while the necessary widespread improvements to pay and conditions remain nowhere to be seen, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.