Essential Workers: Essentially Expendable?

Leading into the rāhui/lockdown in Aotearoa on the 25 March 2020, we asked essential service workers about the issues they were facing. We received 134 responses in the final 10 days of March and have selected some here that represent the range of views and work from the survey. They paint a consistent picture of stress and anxiety, safety concerns not being heard, fear of contracting Covid-19 or infecting loved ones and colleagues. The responses strongly called for immediate lockdown, adequate PPE and crucial financial support at a time when these essential measures were still being debated by government leaders. 

 

Due to the efforts of essential workers and the solidarity by the wider public in staying at home, Aotearoa has been able to relax the strictest social distancing and avoid the catastrophe faced in many other countries. However, the issues that essential workers identified are not new ones. Short-staffing, unsafe workplaces, low pay, work-related distress and frontline workers being excluded from decision-making are all long term problems that Covid-19 brought to the surface. The fact that workers doing the mahi that society depends on are treated as if their own well-being is expendable cannot continue.

 

HSWN members are essential workers too and we tautoko these responses. The delay in getting our survey out is testament to the high emotions, stress and long hours we experienced working on the Covid-19 frontline. Thank you to all the essential workers who answered our survey. See below the unedited responses to the following questions: 

 

1) Where do you work and what is your role/area of essential work (paid on unpaid)?

 

2) How is Covid-19 affecting your personal life and/or work as an essential service worker? (e.g. health and safety concerns, management response, mental health, financial concerns etc).

 

3) What, in your opinion as a frontline worker, needs to be done? (e.g. community or official responses).

 

LMC midwife, working the community, Canterbury

  • NO PPE!! WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO PPE! Please help us. I have a limited volume of hand sanitiser, disinfectant and gloves. No masks, no gowns, no glasses, only if a confirmed case of covid-19. Don’t feel safe. Worried about passing illness to my family or pregnant women. Worried I won’t be able to continue working and there are not enough midwives to care for my clients. Why do bank staff have PPE but I don’t???
  • I need PPE. I need clear guidelines from the ministry of health and NZCOM. We have been told to use ‘clinical judgement’ when choosing who to see face to face. Lots of different interpretations of this.

 

Grocery worker, New World, Wellington

  • Bosses have pushed for maximum overtime from staff, while taking very few precautions and offering nothing in return. Social distancing + ban on indoor gatherings is totally ignored. No protection at all for the staff, aside from disposable gloves, but it is not enforced strongly enough
  • Provide food boxes to those struggling with bills and isolation. Provide hand sanitiser + gloves to customers, Strict limit on entry into store, strictly limit distance between customers + staff. Offer hazard pay/bonuses to staff who continue to work.

 

Registered Nurse, Waikato DHB

  • I feel our hospital is totally unprepared. Managers from women’s health were excluded from planning meetings due to the area being low risk. Adequate precautions not being taken and staff put at risk due to responses.
  • Close schools and stop lying to people about our policy being based on best scientific evidence and the Singapore/Taiwan response. Taiwan closed schools for extended breaks and delivered 81000 gallons of sanitiser to educational facilities, millions of masks, 25000 forehead thermometers, and has 95% of parents notifying schools of their children’s temperature every school morning prior to arriving.

 

Freezing Works worker, Taranaki

  • We work with no distance restrictions,  we are in close contact everyday, on dayshift at one time there may be 500 employees, on night shift 300 employees
  • Be provided with face masks.  Regular testing of all employees for Coronavirus.

 

Checkout operator

  • Concerned that customers are not staying away when they are unwell, I have an at risk mother who is on her own and if I get sick I can’t help her. We are understaffed most days and now have team members who refuse to serve customers which doubles the level of stress for the rest of us.
  • Clear direction to businesses on what qualifies as pre existing medical conditions and for my company to make a decision on how to keep stores safe for us. At the moment they seem to be more interested in profit and being seen to be doing the right thing

 

Elderly support worker for Vision West

  • Personally accessing food and using public facilities like the local library. As a service I am dealing with aggressive N.O.K that are scared.
  • I think my employer needs to be timely with their PPE plan and also clients that do not have essential care should be put on hold. Also to minimise risk small teams of 6 need to only see 8- 10 clients. 

 

Primary care practice nurse

  • Work has been hectic since Monday. We have been one of the testing stations and our normal workload has been overrun by covid-19 enquiries from both pts and other health services. This has taken a major toll on all our staff.
  • Separate covid-19 clinics keeping potential risk away from our genuinely sick pts who need to be seen. Perhaps we could shut down any non-essential parts of our service and spare staff for the covid 19 centres.

 

Registered Nurse, ICU

  •  I just got exposed to a covid positive co worker (doctor) who worked 4 days ago.
  •  Provide PPEs, strict social distancing policies. 

 

New World grocery worker

  • My manager tried to force me to come into work even though I was sick. Not only a violation of my contract, but I’m sure that’s illegal at the moment
  •  Managers to respect the right to sick leave

 

Petrol Station worker

  • Anxiety level increased
  • More health measure in place to serve customers 

 

Clinical Specialty Nurse, CMDHB

  • My husband and I work in the same unit. If one is exposed then other will be affected as well. This will have financial burden on both of us as both need to isolate. Personal experience: after husband got flu like symptoms, I was still allowed to work as I had no symptoms. Husband was to isolate until results were up. Difficulty in getting healthline to answer phone calls. GPs are busy. Different advise from management and GPs. Alot of mental exhaustion felt during this period. Being in a leadership role I have to ensure that all my staff is prepared and able to deal with acute demands as well as ?COVID-19 patients. ICU/HDU trying to save beds for covid-19 patients therefore other acute cases needing 1:1 is deferred or kept at our unit until further notice. Our unit is not a ward therefore patient’s staying longer than 2 hours causes backlog of other cases needing space. Lack of staff due to specialty cares.
  • More funds for APPROPRIATE diagnosis. Husband had to get tested twice as first ones came up negative and due to busy GP clinic ?swabs got mixed up/too many people with flu like symptoms. Standardized gold standard diagnosis. 

 

Medical Centre receptionist/admin

  • Worried re being exposed and potentially taking home to family. Have had pneumonia previously.
  • Better safety from sick people (which we are trying to fast track at my work) supermarkets etc are very exposed all the time with no preventative measures

 

Support worker for IDEA Services

  • Health and safety , infection control, not enough protective equipment is being supplied, no masks whatsoever, extra basic stuff like wipes sprays etc is having to come out if the normal provision money for housekeeping etc etc.
  • More protection for workers.

 

Pizza delivery driver

  • Safety concerns especially if people don’t let us know beforehand on their orders if they are sick
  • All persons ordering anything MUST let us know if they are sick. 

 

Hospital Admin, Dundedin

  • Would prefer to work from home, but not possible as there is no IT support available.
  •  Admin and Clerical staff in the hospital need to be kept advised about the situation in the hospital, just as doctors and nurses are!! 

 

Registered nurse youth health, West Auckland

  • Increased social distancing, considering decreasing appointments to essential only, potential shift forced by DHB to turn our clinic into a testing area which will greatly impact our current essential services.
  • Increased support on Primary Health Care side of management and containment, including paying RNs more, and providing proper funding for or directly providing essential PPE supplies.

 

Registered Nurse, Nelson Hospital

  • Safety of family and friends, if I’m infected at work, will managers (also health professionals) be available to work on the wards? Will we have PPE? If not what is recommended by health and safety?
  • Managers need to involve staff, who will be front line in what the plan is, clear direction.

 

Security, Southern District Health Board

  • Am very concerned for my health at work, no protection been given so far! Also very disappointed testing is not wide spread! How do we know it’s not already community spread if the government puts protocols in place to NOT TEST people whom have all the symptoms? How do we not know that someone whom has all the symptoms, has tried to get themselves tested but can not! How do we know they didn’t catch it from the person coughing in front of them at the supermarket! So pissed at our government right now! Too little, too late
  • Ease of mind! Test people for crying out loud! Lock the country down like in China!You know in China they put a metal bar across the entrances to houses where people were infected! We are doing bugger all! No safety measures at supermarkets, no protection at work! 

 

Registered Nurse, Ōpōtiki

  • Working 6-7 days a week. Partner in the higher risk category (male, diabetic on ACE inhibitor), he has had to close his business as he works in events and they are all cancelled/postponed.
  • Ensure sufficient PPE, encourage additional staff to work if possible to ensure more normal hours are being kept, otherwise working 7 days a week for a long time will end up with more staff off sick.

 

Checkout operator, New World, Thorndon

  • Putting my life at risk to serve others, not being able to stay 2 meters away from other people and not much precautions in place for staff. Uni courses are going online now.
  • More health and safety precautions for staff.

 

Home support worker for the elderly and people with disabilities

  • My agency has not provided PPE for some years. Now we can’t get any ourselves. Management won’t answer any questions about this – clients are cancelling cares – less hours for us – as we move from house to house we fear transmitting the virus; however management have said we are no more at risk than any flu season. All our clients are extra vulnerable – we have five days a year sick leave and are expected to use it, and then apply for annual leave. There is no talk of special leave. – we already work erratic hours with cancelled cares and changes in guaranteed hours being a problem – Many of us are elderly ourselves or have respiratory problems. When on Friday Geneva told its workers over 70 and immunocompromised workers they couldn’t work, that meant many workers downed tools – some workers are leaving their jobs because their own health is poor. They are worried about getting infected. – management from my agency seems to treat the situation as business as usual. We’re just asked to watch the government website. We still get texts every day asking us to do jobs – there is nothing communicated about the free flu vaccine.
  • Clarity of communication. If they don’t know, tell us. Acknowledging our value as care workers. 

 

Māori midwife in the community, Manawatū 

  • I am an asthmatic so is my son. Likewise my brother and my mother who is 67. I hv. Made the choice to keep my son home. I can no longer support wāhine hapū to birth. I am lucky my husband can still work and I have another form of income at the moment.
  • There needs to be an action plan set for kaimahi Māori to make sure we as frontline staff are looked after in a culturally responsive way, as well as the whanau we support.

 

Security officer at supermarket

  • Scared, feeling helpless. Accepting probably going to get sick
  • Free public transport and other benefits for low wage essential workers.

 

Radiology, Mid Central Health

  • Have to work, shared child care, solo Mum. Who looks after my kids when I have to work? or do I not work and not get paid?
  • Being told we don’t have enough protective gear at the hospital is very worrying. Produce more hand sanitizer, people are worried because it ran out.

 

Caregiver for mother and uncle, one with dementia one with lung cancer

  • I am concerned I may carry virus to them as I’m their only contact to outside world at the moment. I’m the only one to do their shopping cooking and personal cares. Very worried.
  • Level 4 needs to be put in place

 

Forensic psychiatry, Mason Clinic

  • Rest of family at home. Onus on me not to bring the virus home-or take it to work!
  • A robust  barrier in place both at home and at work, a sort of firewall each end. Simple, but consistent. I will carry my ID, to prove that I am a health worker, and legitimately out of my house. Public information needs to be everywhere. Clear and simple guidelines, and repeated. People need to understand what is essential and what is useless. I saw quite a few people wearing disposable gloves at a supermarket yesterday, and touching everything with those gloved hands, as if they would somehow not transfer infection. I guess advice needs to be dynamic as we observe behaviours and see what the salient gaps in our defences are.

 

Longline assistant, Countdown

  • Really concerned with the number of people rushing stores and no safety equipment provided for the workers.
  • People coming in and out of the store should be tested by their temperature and safety equipment such as gloves and masks should be provided to the workers.

 

Front Reception, DHB hospital

  • I’m not getting information given to me from my management or above as to what is happening so I am unable to put things in place and am prepared for situations and questions I get asked at work by the public. I don’t know what’s happening with my job. This is affecting me getting to work as I depend on public transport. Health and safety hasn’t been covered efficiently for my area, the front of the hospital. This has been shown by an incident that occured due to the sanitiser and how everyone passed the buck to wanting to be accountable for it and wanting to prevent it, so I took it upon myself. Financially it’s beginning to cripple me as I was meant to be starting more hours this week because of financial struggle, now this will impact on me mentally and financially. Lack of team morale within the workplace has been a huge impact on me, no communication or compassion. No rallying together to care about one another at this time of need but this behaviour ripples from the top.
  • Supervisors and management’s needs to find out what is planned for our department for the next four weeks and let us know ASAP so we can plan our lives. There needs to be firm leaders in each team chosen my management to take the wheel during this time. Communication is the key. We also should be getting financial support for this especially people in my types of positions that have close proximity of contact with people in case we get ill as we are sacrificing our well being for the people or Aotearoa. 

 

Nurse, ICU

  • Family separation. Young children and elderly parents so to protect them while being available to care for patients I have isolated myself from them. Although utilising PPE there are still concerns of transmission to healthcare workers as had happened in China & Italy. So while many are worried about being crowded at home many of us health carers are looking at a lonely time when we are at home. And frustrated I can’t help them with the everyday business and worry about the stress on my parents. And their worry for me. Once it gets busy then it’ll be very different as we will all have a hyper focus at work and we all anticipate working a lot of extras. Getting tired and needing to maximise our own immunity too is a concern.
  • Nutritional Meals/drinks supplied and perhaps accommodation for some….. not everyone can isolate as easily from loved ones as others can. Maybe some simple immune supplemental support for staff. And emotional support early to aid staff resilience.Maybe DHB only shopping times at supermarkets…to reduce public interaction but also free up supplies for essential workers. And supermarkets need to count customers and limit numbers of people going in and out of the stores. Lock down to limit spread of disease is important and we all need to adhere to it. 

 

LMC Midwife

  • Isolated at home as my husband is immunocompromised and I have an underlying health condition as well. This means I have to pay a backup midwife out of my own pocket, to cover my caseload. Not sure how we are going to manage financially. Also have concerns about lack of PPE provisions for midwives working closely with people, particularly as there is no other profession that is at higher risk of exposure to body fluids. 

 

District Nurse

  • Afraid of bringing the virus home to loved ones.
  • Provide health care workers who are working during a community outbreak with paid accommodation to help to contain the spread. There are many nurses out there for who it is impossible to isolate from family members within one household. 

 

LMC Midwife

  • I’m concerned about lack of guidance from the MOH and NZCOM.. I’m worried for my health and risk of exposure. I’m currently unable to access any PPE or cleaning/disinfectant supplies.
  • More guidance, more support, more ppe and disinfectant supplies.

 

Public transport bus driver

  • Financial concerns, health & safety concerns, implications of social distancing on single households
  • More emphasis on workplace cleaning for non- public areas; transfers of covid in car surfaces 

 

Self employed midwife

  • Expected to carry on seeing women with currently limited guidance and NP provision so far of PPEs. 
  • Urgent provision of PPEs and no expectations of us to work without them. And for midwives appreciate pay provision. It is shocking what we are expected to do for little pay and no pay 

 

LMC Midwife, West Community

  • Very stressed. Have been given no PPE equipment, no guidance from the midwifery council or MOH and expected to still see women with no safety or information. Huge health and safety concerns, this has been poorly managed especially since it was obvious this would happen. Very worried about money. Rent should stop.
  • Rent and mortgage and bills need to be stopped. A ban on more than 2 products in supermarkets should have been implemented earlier. Should have been better control on stockpiling infection control equipment. The airport should have done better control and screening. We need answers from the MOH, we need PPE equipment and to not have accountability if something goes wrong because we weren’t allowed to see our patients. We need direction.

 

Paramedic, Christchurch

  • Anxiety increased and a more stressful workload.
  • Promises for the future (both short and long term), practical and demonstrative assurances.

 

Ward clerk, Surgical wards

  • Mental health. Clinical depression diagnosed. No support groups – shut down at mo. Being at hospital I’m overly anxious, depressed and worried.Would rather be home but I can’t – I’m not 70 plus pregnant etc. Clinical depression. Is not deemed unsafe.
  • Transparency. For staff at home and rostered days off, no work emails coming to home emails. So very much in the dark. 

 

Frontline Mental Health Crisis Respite 

  • My staff over half team at my site dropped off because of fear of taking C19 home. We that are working skeleton thinks we should be Compensated above our normal rate. The flak I’m getting from home because a partner has a Respiratory disease has caused our home stress. No assurances from our NGO or Capital Coast Health that they will give us Priority healthcare in the event of CV19. No danger money no promised time down when the Pandemic for all who are frontline Health on ordinary wages. Thanks guys.
  • All people before contact with Health workers including my site in Mental Health Crisis respite tested for Covid 19 before working with them. DHB to pick up.our Client Bedding done at Hospital stop spread of germs we only have a small home brand 5kg machine doesn’t ever seem up to standard yet they’re willing to risk clients beds not sanitized properly.

 

Practice Nurse

  • Very very upset today as both myself and husband who is working at another hospital in another region 6 hrs away ,  are front line medical workers. Kids very scared that we both going to die ! Management have been excellent in getting PPE, but feel it’s been largely up to us if we wear it when dealing with the general public. Feeling very very torn between my children and my duty to my patients, very very stressful. Extremely worried about bringing virus home to my children.
  • Need to make general Public aware of how serious this Covid 19 is and how deadly it is! Proper policing of “lockdown” NO ONE out socialising ! Front line workers need to be protected from public who might see their needs as more important and get aggressive and abusive (this happens now let alone when there is this heightened stress)  There needs to be Adequate alternative services for counselling / mental health services e.g. phone consult.  this has finished just No Leave at this time. We are stressed it means washing clothing daily no scrubs available and no booties or head covers either so the power Bill’s at work skyrocket showering before work and after we Want to be compensated with higher rates of pay like Hospitals pay time and half double time and unlimited sick leave during 

 

 

 

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