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How Best to Recognise and Thank our Frontline Workers

By Dr Marjorie O'Neill on July 8, 2020 in Other

Overworked and underpaid. Photo: Shirley Gilroy

I was brought up to believe that all work is valuable and no job more important than another, but events of the past six months have challenged this belief as we have all come to realise our collective dependence on the efforts of frontline workers, particularly in the context of crises. As drought, bushfires and then COVID-19 threatened, and sometimes took, the lives and well-being of Australians, we have realised just how dependent we are on the efforts and bravery of those workers whose efforts are directed to protecting us.
At the very front line of our defence are the firefighters, nurses, doctors and various emergency workers who literally risk their lives to protect ours. Then, there are the very many who provide public services crucial to the functioning of society and whose work also places them at risk. Consider our garbage collectors, bus drivers, train conductors and shop assistants, who have been required to face the community and even handle our rubbish, often with little or no protective wear or social distancing. Let’s also acknowledge the amazing efforts of our teachers, who were first asked to radically alter how they did their work and go online, and then were asked to go back into their classrooms where social distancing would be an impossibility.
I am personally in great awe of all the frontline workers who stand between the ordinary citizen and the threat, whose efforts increase our chances of getting through a crisis. Our Eastern Suburbs have a rich diversity of occupational groups and we all have personal knowledge of the challenges that have faced frontline workers over the past months. My sister is a primary school teacher and I have seen firsthand how she and her colleagues have worked tirelessly to adapt their teaching to ensure that kids can still learn under these changing and challenging circumstances. I am very conscious of the safety issues faced by my uncle driving a garbage truck and the physical, as well as emotional, traumas faced by my cousin as a firefighter. I have not heard any of these people complain but I have seen their commitment and occasionally their fatigue and anxiety.
I am especially in awe of the efforts of nurses and am fortunate to have a good deal of contact with those in the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District, which includes the Royal Women’s, Prince of Wales and Sydney Children’s Hospitals. Nurses rarely receive the recognition that they deserve. Even in so-called ‘normal times’, the nursing profession is overrepresented in bullying and other workplaces hazards including assaults, workplace injuries and exposure to infectious diseases. Although appropriate nurse-to-patient ratios would help ensure better safety and more sustainable workplaces for nurses, these workplace standards do not exist in New South Wales. During this pandemic there has been not only increased risk for nurses but also increased workloads.
Community support and gratitude for our essential workers is evident. It is amazing that as a society we are so dependent on the efforts of those who we reward so little. None of these people are high flyers working down the big end of town. Most earn less – and some a lot less – than $80,000 a year. Some earn above $100,000, but not much more, and that comes after many years’ experience. None receive big bonuses, overseas trips or corporate cards. As public service workers, their wages growth has stagnated in recent decades. Is freezing their wages and denying them a lawfully negotiated moderate wage increase really the best way to thank them? Let me please say, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, you are amazing!