Pandemic Aftermath: Reflecting on the Value and Compensation of Essential Workers

After the first confirmation of a COVID case in Norway in late February 2020, the Norwegian government found itself in a difficult situation where the prevention of the virus was urgent, while the functioning of public institutions was necessary.

Stock photo from July 2020, by Tempura / Getty Images

Therefore, the Norwegian government categorized certain workers as especially important or critical to society (samfunnsviktige or samfunnskritiske, in English often referred to as ‘essential workers’) and asked them to continue working as normal, while others – in contrast – were asked to shelter at home and avoid public spaces as much as possible.

Vastly different experiences of the pandemic

Consequently, divergence in occupational roles, responsibilities and risks led to vastly different experiences of the pandemic.

Frontline essential workers were exposed to significant risk and many experienced substantive anxiety and insecurity during the pandemic. Now, in the post-lockdown period, it seems appropriate to ask whether, and in what ways, society owes these workers a debt of gratitude. Does the pandemic experience provide a new angle from which to think about the relationship between work, workers and their value in an equitable society?

Back in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in Norway and the implementation of the national lockdown, there was considerable fear, uncertainty, and lack of information about the virus and its long-term effects. As the lockdown went on, many people became frustrated with being stuck at home. Extended periods of isolation led to loneliness and mental health struggles. And there was a growing debate about the extent of the government’s power to impose lockdowns and other stringent public health measures on citizens.

In reality, lockdown and other public health regulations oscillated in their burdensomeness over the pandemic period, and individual citizens increasingly made judgement calls of their own, weighing the risk of certain activities to their health and that of others.

In the post-pandemic period public health advice adopts a similar line: not insisting citizens take any particular action but advising them to consider whether it might be appropriate to do so in light of their own needs and vulnerabilities. During the height of the pandemic, however, essential workers’ choice to decide the appropriate action based on their own evaluation was more constrained than that of other citizens by what was asked of them, and the legacy of these demands by the state and the nature of the response to those demands needs evaluating.

Who is ‘Essential’?

In March 2020, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security presented a list of socially critical functions  based on the 2016 report Samfunnets kritiske funksjoner (Socially critical functions) which was commissioned from The Directorate for Social Security and Preparedness (DSB).

Definitions of who is considered to be essential were clarified based on this list, which identified fourteen categories of ‘socially critical’ functions that must be maintained during periods of emergency. These categories were included, among others,

  • law and order,
  • defense,
  • health care,
  • transport, and
  • food supply services.

The list was updated several times throughout the pandemic, and in 2020 five additional sectors were labeled having a ‘socially important’ function, including, for example, kindergartens and schools. These classifications recognized the work within these sectors as essential, and ensured a spot for critical workers’ young children in a kindergarten or school.

In this blog I focus primarily on the essential workers who were required to continue to work in-person during the pandemic emergency (as their work could not be or was not done remotely): such workers include grocery store clerks, cleaners, transport workers, health care workers, teachers, kindergarten employees and more. Through their job, these workers were often at higher risk for exposure to infection, and risked exposing their families.

The workers in these essential jobs are typically lower paid and more likely to be marginalized or disadvantaged in society: raising questions regarding the distribution of work-related rights and obligations during the pandemic. Often it is women and immigrants who fulfill these essential forms of work, though this varies depending on the category – for example, a disproportionate number of nurses and teachers are women, and many health workers, cleaners and shop workers are immigrants. In practice, this means that, during the pandemic, it was precisely  those who are less well paid, have fewer resources and are more marginalized in our society, who were asked to take on a bigger burden than most in order to protect the rest of us.

This reality underlines the importance of acknowledging and reflecting on the intensity of the burden on essential workers, and even to consider, perhaps, what is fair and what we owe to them.

‘Empty words’: Recognition of essential workers

Health care workers in particular were applauded and recognized for providing critical health care during this emergency despite the extra risk to their own health.

However, there were many other types of essential workers who fulfilled critical functions and faced similar exposure risks yet who did not receive much recognition for their work, such as grocery store workers, cleaners and transport workers, for example.

While jobs such as these, which do not require formal higher education, may appear to have little in common with those of health care professionals or teachers with high levels of education, in the pandemic context these jobs share a higher risk of exposure and low economic rewards, as well as an essential function. Yet these workers are regarded differently in terms of social recognition.

While the experience of the pandemic has encouraged people to think more about the importance of these workers and their remuneration, this has not brought about significant changes in pay or conditions for the essential workers. This led some workers to view being labeled as essential, and having their work publicly applauded, as empty words, and to feel that their hard and risky work was soon forgotten after lockdown and restrictions ended.

Who is valued?

These two categories of essential workers – those that do not require formal higher education, such as grocery store workers, transport workers and cleaners, and those that require formal education and involve high components of interpersonal care work, such as health care workers and those in the education sector – face different forms of social stigma and devaluing of their labor.

Essential workers without formal higher education

When it comes to the first group, a common narrative is that those in jobs with low pay, benefits or conditions should simply increase their education and skills in order to get a ‘good’ job. As Paul Osterman writes, “Scholars and policymakers point to the correlation between education and wages and argue that if people had more skills and schooling then they would not find themselves in bad jobs. In other words, inevitable market forces are at work.”

Setting aside that it is not always so simple to access these opportunities, and that statistics show a more complicated relationship between wages and education, while people gaining education and skills and ascending through the labor market can be a very positive thing for individuals, this way of thinking also allows the continuation and social acceptance of stigma, bad conditions and low wages in jobs without formal education requirements.

As Osterman says, this “obscures important alternative solutions to the challenge of low-wage jobs”. These do not have to be ‘bad’ jobs. As has been highlighted by the pandemic, these jobs are in fact essential to fill the basic needs of society. But still these workers are socially and economically devalued.

Some essential workers and trade unions have attempted to use the visibility imposed by the pandemic as leverage to improve their pay and conditions, with varying degrees of success.

The cleaners of Tromsø

To give one example, cleaners at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø (UiT) expressed frustration when in 2020 they received UiT’s working environment award for their pandemic work which kept the campus open, when this appreciation was not reflected in their salary, as they received only a nominal increase in 2020. In 2021, however, they did receive an extra salary step to reward their extraordinary efforts. Such recognition was hard to obtain for cleaners. In 2022, cleaners of the Norwegian Workers’ Union sought higher wages and a pandemic settlement as part of their collective agreement, which would ensure extra payment for disinfection cleaning, in preparation for future pandemics. In the resulting settlement, cleaners did receive a pay increase, but it was agreed that the pandemic supplement must be discussed locally.

Essential workers with formal higher education

In the second group, which includes jobs in health care, such as nursing, as well as those in education are also typically devalued in specific ways, and are often low-paid despite the high level of education and skills that these workers have.

These jobs involve a ‘caring’ dimension to the work. Societal attitudes and stigmas about care work (stereotyped as women’s work), have led to it being undervalued and seen as natural rather than a crucial part of their work. Women’s care work has been historically undervalued, of course: both unpaid and taken for granted. Professions with a caring component follow this pattern – as a huge portion of the job is based in ‘unproductive’ care that doesn’t produce something that can be measured and converted into exchange value.

Workers involved in care work are commonly expected and encouraged to see it as a ‘vocation’ or ‘calling’ rather than a job, one that is fulfilling regardless of monetary reward. Care professions have always relied on a feeling of duty and vocation on the part of care workers, and this was emphasized even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emotional attachment and moral commitment are valorized, encouraging workers to go above and beyond and do more than they are paid to do or can do in work hours, often causing guilt or shame if one is unable or unwilling to fulfill extra commitments.

In Norway, the pay gap between men and women is primarily explained by the difference in pay between typically female-dominated and male-dominated professions. Female-dominated professions are systematically lower paid. Obviously, these same lower paid professions have a very clear value for society.

The importance of workers in professions with care components during the pandemic was particularly apparent, and they have endured risky conditions, long hours, and lower pay compared to many other professions. There is already a shortage of nurses in many places in Norway, largely due to the demands of the work and low pay offered, and more and more nurses leave the nursing profession for the same reasons. Additionally, both during and now following the pandemic, the public health care system and education system were and are not sufficiently staffed and given enough resources to function properly in a way that benefits both the service recipients and ensures reasonable conditions for the workers.

In fact, as recently as October 2023, the health region Helse Sør-Øst outlined plans to cut down on nurse and doctor positions while expecting health care workers to see more patients, which will likely make conditions for the workers (and the patients) more difficult.

Turning words into actions

Clearly, there needs to be change in how professions with care components are compensated and valued. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique distillation of the falsehoods that belittle the importance of the professions of many essential workers.

Today, it is important for society to re-evaluate the way that we think about these jobs. We have been reminded how crucial they are, and we have seen up close the extreme conditions under which these workers labored for us during the pandemic. We must recognize the additional contributions they made for society and challenge our ideas about how their work is valued. And we must follow through in our praise of essential workers by supporting their claims to fairer pay and conditions.

Is this likely? Both during and after the pandemic periods we have seen teachers, kindergarten workers, bus drivers, cleaners, and nurses strike. When teachers went on strike in 2022, these actions were ended prematurely by the government imposing a compulsory arbitration, wherein employees must return to work and the National Wages Board determines a new collective agreement, with the importance of these functions to society serving as a rationale for the government to step in and end the strike. In this way, society’s reliance on such workers can act against them in labor disputes, making it challenging to advocate for their demands as other professions would.

It is a difficult balancing act to weigh the needs of society against those of critical workers, but we did it during the pandemic, and it is crucial that they are still able to advocate for fairer remuneration and conditions afterwards.

The pandemic revealed truths about how crucial these workers of undervalued jobs are to keep society running. This is an opportunity for us to choose to use this knowledge post-pandemic to shape a fairer society.

Author

Notes

[1] Reiersen, Svarstad and Søberg show, in their survey on the attitudes of Norwegians towards the salary levels of the essential workers nurses and cleaners, that Norwegians are supportive of pay rises for critical workers, and favor smaller wage differences in society. https://nye.econa.no/faglig-oppdatering/medlemsbladet-magma/2-2023/er-samfunnskritiske-jobber-for-darlig-betalt-r/

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