Life

Coronavirus: 5 women on the reality of being a key worker in a pandemic

While many of us work from home or switch to furlough, Stylist speaks to five women, in very different industries, who are still working on the frontline of the pandemic. 

Last night, people across the UK once again took to their balconies, windows and front doors to clap for our NHS. These healthcare workers are the people on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, risking their own lives everyday as they work to save others. They are our national heroes and clapping our hands together is of course the very least we can do to show our support while social distancing.

But it wasn’t just NHS staff we were thanking.

The UK also clapped for people who are still keeping everything else afloat. Shop assistants are making sure we are able to safely buy food and essentials. Without waste operatives, we’d quickly start complaining about our bins not being emptied. Care workers are looking after the vulnerable and elderly, despite a lack of support from the government. And without pharmacists, bus drivers, cleaners, delivery people and many other key workers – we just wouldn’t be functioning as a nation right now.

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Many people are working from home, taking furlough or have unfortunately been made redundant. So what is it like having to still go out there and work during a pandemic?

Stylist spoke with five female key workers to find out.

“I had to stop hairdressing, so I got a job at Aldi”

Carmel had to stop her hairdressing services, so she took a job at Aldi instead.
Carmel had to stop her hairdressing services, so she took a job at Aldi instead.

Carmel is a self-employed hairdresser who had to close her salon after Boris Johnson announced lockdown. She was left with no income, but Universal Credit would only entitle her to £94 a week, and she would get £290 a month towards her £495-a-month rent. 

A system has come into place for self- employed people to receive 80% of their net profit monthly average over the last three months. However, as Carmel only started her self-employment three years ago, her net profit was “not high at all” compared to this year.

“This payment was also not going to be paid until June and I know I would need money to survive before then,” she tells Stylist. “I knew I couldn’t sit around and rely on the government to help me pay my bills and to buy food, so I contacted one of my clients who owns a recruitment agency and she kindly got me in for an interview at Aldi distribution really quickly.”

She has since been working as a picker in a “big fridge” at the warehouse to distribute food to shops.

Speaking about how important it is for the government and public to value key workers in future, Carmel says: “I definitely think the pandemic will change the perception of key workers. Life would not be able to move forward each day if it wasn’t for them still working on the front line.”

“I’m a plumber who’s still on the road, just in case your toilet gets blocked”

Key workers
Oretha is a plumber who is still making sure you don't have to live with any blockages during isolation.

Oretha is a heating and plumbing engineer at Metro Plumb South East who is doing emergency calls during the pandemic – no one wants to be left with a blocked toilet during quarantine. While working, Oretha needs to thoroughly clean both herself and her van in between jobs and wear extra personal protective gear (PPE). 

Talking about the response she has received from thankful customers, she tells Stylist: “I’m being treated like a hero by some people! A lot of people are very grateful but also a bit hesitant to let someone into their home right now. They can see we’ve taken all the precautionary measures though, which reassures them. A lot of women say they’re proud to see a female plumber but I don’t do it for the praise, for me it’s a job and I love doing it.”

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She adds: “A lot of people didn’t see the talent, skill and dedication it takes to be a key worker and I think recent events have opened their eyes a bit.”

“I’m still emptying public bins during the pandemic”

Coronavirus key workers
Julie is still volunteering to empty public bins during quarantine.

Julie is responsible for emptying certain bins in her town in Wiltshire, and she still has to continue while the coronavirus crisis is happening. Julie also believes that the government is giving enough support for key workers, especially as they are also addressing all the other circumstantial situations people across the UK are in.

She says: “The public are very thankful for us emptying the bins, as people still need a place to put litter and dog poo bags! Key workers are highly needed people to keep the place moving.”

“I am a pharmacy adviser with a disability, and my commute to work is a big problem”

Key workers during coronavirus
Osayuki Igbinoba is working at a pharmacist so that people can get their prescriptions.

Osayuki Igbinoba is a Scope for Change campaigner and pharmacy student who is currently working as a pharmacy adviser at Boots. Along with a very high demand for prescriptions, there are also more queries from patients over the phone and more people are buying over the counter medicines since the outbreak. There is low stock of certain medicines such as paracetamol.

Osayuki thinks pharmacists and pharmacy teams are not getting enough recognition from the government, saying they are “rarely acknowledged” in speeches and letters. She explains: “Pharmacy teams do more than stick labels on the boxes of medicines. People come to the pharmacy more now because there is a longer waiting time for appointments or requests at the GP surgeries.”

The public response to her being at work as been “incredible”. But the commute to work is a worrying factor for Osayuki, as she is a double amputee who uses a wheelchair on the train and staff haven’t been bringing a ramp for her to board.

She says: “The staff said they have been instructed by their manager not to assist disabled passengers because of social distancing. After a long discussion with them, they reluctantly agreed to bring the ramp. I asked for someone to help push me up the ramp. However, the man on the platform did not even want to touch the handles of my wheelchair to push me. He said he should not be touching things. The whole experience was very distressing.”

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“I have to take public transport every day, so that I don’t lose my cleaning job”

Government guidelines on who are considered key workers don’t include office cleaners. But a 60-year-old cleaner at a private equity company, who wishes to remain anonymous, has told Stylist that her employer will fire cleaners who don’t work even though there is “nothing left to clean” in the empty office. Individuals cannot apply for furlough by themselves without agreement from the employee.

“I do not have access to a car so I’m forced to take public transport five days a week and risk myself getting infected just so I do not lose my job,” she says. “I don’t know what I can do about this situation as, when I raised this with management, they told us we will be fired if we don’t go in.”

She adds: “I still have to pay my bills and put food on the table for my daughter who is in her third year of university and was made redundant from her job when this all kicked off.

But, sadly, she thinks cleaners have always faced this type of worry, explaining: “I think we will definitely be more respected by the members of the public, but cleaners have faced these kind of issues where managers will shout at you and threaten to fire you whenever you don’t agree to doing more than what is in your contract.”

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#clapforourcarers: how you can thank NHS workers during the coronavirus crisis

These are five very different experiences of doing key work during the coronavirus pandemic. But they all deserve to be appreciated and thanked, both now and in the future. So, when you clap for the NHS every Thursday, remember to give a special round of applause for key workers too.

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Images: Getty, provided by individuals