by APRIL BRYCE | Published on October 27, 2021


In May 2020, I wrote a post discussing the changing meaning of “essential worker” in the face of COVID in the United States. Here in Texas, we had endured close to three months of lockdown, with a cautious reopening just beginning to roll out. During that time, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, sanitation workers and other employees not traditionally considered “essential workers” were being viewed in a new, more appreciative light. I wondered what was to come as we began to reopen. Would changed attitudes to newly-defined essential workers remain?  

A year later, it’s been a much longer journey back to some kind of normal than I could have imagined. Working closely with colleagues in the UK and Asia-Pacific day in day out, we regularly talk over Teams about our shared experiences of the pandemic – but also the differences, especially as our respective home countries have faced unique challenges and taken very different paths. This March while the governor of Texas announced us “open for business” and removed all restrictions (while COVID numbers were still relatively high), my colleagues in the UK were in the midst of their second strict lockdown, and in Australia life was almost normal as early, affirmative action had effectively obliterated COVID across the entire country.   

I was interested to understand how our experiences, cultures, and regulations have impacted on the changing definition of essential workers. Recently my colleagues Jessica Carrington (Account Director, UK), Fiona Warren (Agency Director, Australia) and I put our heads together to share some insights and perspectives. We did find some marked differences in attitudes and provisions for essential workers, but overall some universal themes. 

How do you think attitudes to essential workers have changed in your country? 

Jess: In the pre-COVID world, the term “key worker” would no doubt sit with emergency services – healthcare workers, police and the fire service. And in the UK the government definition of “key worker” has not changed since it was first announced in March 2020 to include others who we might not have thought of – education and childcare, food and necessary goods, key public services like journalists, postal staff, religious staff, utility workers and transport.  

There’s no doubt that it’s made us think what – or who – is really important. The value that we assign to certain workers has shifted.  

Fiona: And I think that’s been the same here in Australia. The definition has widened to supermarket staff, cleaners, aged care workers. And then some new roles have emerged based on the COVID response, so I think we’d also have to include the security guards working at quarantine hotels, and air stewards who are bringing Australians home. One to note here is hygiene workers. By that I mean anyone who is employed to handle hygiene to keep our environments safe. This has been reflected in new government rules which have actually generated further employment. Australian governments and companies have adapted to a post-COVID world by employing people to clean handrails, benches, tables and so on, and there are COVID-safe marshalls at public venues such as pubs and stadiums to ensure you have checked in via the state’s QR code and that social distancing is adhered to.  

April: I think in the US “essential worker” came to mean frontline staff like grocery workers and delivery drivers, but due to the urgency to get this country reopened, some interesting roles ended up being considered “essential”, for example fast food workers. The lines were definitely more blurry than in the UK.  I also think the hero effect is perhaps starting to wear off. A year ago I felt quite emotional thanking the guy who wiped down my shopping cart at Trader Joe’s. Now, I’m grateful, but I suppose I’m also used to it. Perhaps we’re starting to take many essential workers for granted.   

But I think one area where the hero effect remains strongly intact is for healthcare workers.  

April: In spring of 2020 urban areas like New York City, we had nightly clapping for healthcare workers – usually coordinated with the change of shift at hospitals. We saw the NYPD and NYFB applauding healthcare workers too.  

In sprawling cities and rural areas like we have here in Texas, I don’t think this would have had the same effect. But that’s not to say efforts went unnoticed. Local restaurants and businesses donated food to hospital workers, and started donation programs so we could all show our appreciation.  

The pride and purpose people feel has clearly lasted as medical schools report record rises in applications. And according to Google “how to become a nurse” was one of the most popular search terms of 2020, with nursing schools seeing a steady rise of 6% in applications too.  

Jess: I agree, and in the UK of course we had clap for carers throughout that same period of time. The pride and appreciation that people felt was palpable. It was emotional. And maybe because we have the NHS which people feel so proud of, there was another layer to this outpouring of thanks.  

Similarly, applications for nursing have risen – but more significantly than in the US, they’ve risen by almost a third (32%) in 2020 – across both school-leavers and mature students, and across ethnic groups. The Nursing Officer for NHS England said the ‘Nightingale effect’ means interest in the NHS is trumping lots of other careers. That shows how highly and widely recognized the work of healthcare workers has been – and remains.  

Fiona: The acknowledgment of healthcare workers in Australia was a little more subdued. Perhaps because the situation was handled so swiftly, and we didn’t see the horrifying numbers that the UK and US did. But, while we didn’t go out into the streets to clap or have fighter jets fly over our cities, Australians showed appreciation in their own ways. 

A major telecommunications company turned over its Bourke Street billboard in Melbourne to the nation to share a message of appreciation, and independent breweries from across Australia teamed up to gift a four pack to essential workers (an authentically Australian gesture!).  

The appreciation and respect is there. COVID put the spotlight on just how important our healthcare workers are. And of course not all healthcare workers are highly paid. They work incredibly hard. They’ve put their lives on the line. I don’t think that will be easily forgotten.  

Which is interesting. Because if healthcare workers are the epitome of essential workers, how do we compare their experience with that of grocery workers, delivery drivers, teachers and sanitation workers? Has the new-found respect and appreciation for those roles already worn off? 

Jess: It’s an important question, because the potential impacts are far-reaching. One of the biggest revelations of the past year has been that essential roles are often done by so-called ‘low-skilled’ workers, such as those working in care homes, transport and retail. There was a study by King’s College London which found that 64% of the British public agree the pandemic has made them value the role of the ‘low skilled’ worker more.  

It goes further, though. The same study highlighted a new recognition of migrant workers with 70% of people agreeing that the coronavirus shows how important their contribution is to essential services. A disproportionate percentage of migrant workers and low paid workers are in essential sectors – health and social care, food, utilities and communities, transport. So a new appreciation for these workers could be a jumping off point for change in attitudes to wealth, benefits, and race.  

It remains to be seen if it will last, I think sadly and inevitably as we see more of a return to normality, attitudes might shift backwards.  

Fiona: This is the same in Australia. Many of the frontline occupations we’re talking about also sit at the lower end of the income spectrum here. I found some figures that really put this in perspective. As a benchmark, if we look at workers who take home less than $800 per week for full-time hours ($620 US, and £440), 18% of Australia’s total workforce fall into this low-income bracket, but when we look to essential workers that’s 60% of food preparation workers, 59% of checkout operators, 52% of childcare workers, 45% of cleaners, and on it goes.  

At the other end of the spectrum, 20% of the overall Australian workforce makes a weekly income of $2,000 of more ($1,551 USD, and £1,115). Medical practitioners, ambulance workers, pharmacists, police and other emergency workers match or exceed this proportion, yet only 16% of bus drivers, 12% of school teachers, 10% of nurses and 8% of social workers and counsellors fall into this upper wage bracket. All other frontline workers on this list barely feature.  

It would take a crisis to stop us in our tracks and make us re-evaluate this, but here we are – hopefully – emerging from a global pandemic, and I don’t think things are going to change. Yes, we value the work of essential workers, but because many are deemed ‘low-skilled’, I fear society will never truly show them the respect or salary that you might expect for a truly essential role.  

April: I notice the same trend occurring in the US. So perhaps what we’re seeing is genuine gratitude, but also a kind of gratitude that comes down to, “I’d rather you than me”. And maybe if we consider other true crises our countries have been through – wars, natural disasters, terrorist attacks – things change, but eventually the short-term attitudes wear off. We’ve been going through this for over a year, so my hope is that we do remember. 

But what about in the short term, has there been any evidence of stepping up for essentials workers? Have vaccinations guidelines in your country prioritized essential workers beyond healthcare workers? 

Fiona: That’s an interesting one in Australia. Our overall response has been perhaps the opposite of the UK and the US. Because local governments were able to contain transmission so well through lockdowns, contact tracing and quarantine, the federal government hasn’t rushed to secure vaccines. But there is a strategy moving forward, with healthcare, quarantine and border workers within Phase 1a, and certain  “critical and high-risk workers” within Phase 1b, including police, fire, emergency services and meat processing. We aren’t seeing the prioritization of teachers, childcare workers or supermarket workers, for example.  

April: That’s similar to the US strategy, actually. Of course, ours has varied by state, but generally healthcare workers were the highest priority group. More interest was Phase 1b, as around half the states included teachers and childcare workers within this priority group. Doubtless, this was with a view to getting schools reopened (whereas in Australia, they are already open). In certain states, such as California, schools have been closed for extended periods of up to a year. Here in Texas, parents were given the choice of remote or in-person learning this year. Many states took the guidance further to include anyone working in a childcare or school setting – including bus drivers, canteen workers, and janitorial staff. 

Jess: It’s been controversial here. While our vaccine rollout has been fast, the initial priority list was entirely based on the people who are most likely to die from the disease, and those who immediately care for them – so frontline health staff and social care workers. Not teachers, or supermarket workers, or the police. Over half a million people have signed a petition demanding that teachers, school and childcare staff be given vaccination priority.  

Do you think the petition actually tells us something? A new appreciation for teachers? 

Jess: Having homeschooled my daughter I can confidently say yes to this one! We look to essential workers such as emergency services and sanitation workers, and we appreciate them, but we didn’t have to step into their roles. Teaching was spotlighted in a very different way: those of us with kids at home had to step up. Often while juggling our own workloads and the care of younger children too.  

It’s definitely raised the profile of teaching, and the overall number of teacher training applications in the UK rose 16% in 2020 according to UCAS.  

April: That’s great to hear, because while parents who have homeschooled seem to have a renewed appreciation for teachers here too, there are signs that the pandemic has had a negative effect. A recent study found the mood amongst teachers was in a large part nervous, distressed, and scared, although determined. Applications for teacher programs are down, including on-the-job training programs such as Teach for America. This week is our annual Teacher Appreciation Week in America, I think they deserve it more this year than ever! 

On that note, have any employers in your home countries taken steps to reward or just show appreciation for their essential workers? 

Fiona: Retailers have. Several major retailers thanked their employees with a one-off bonus payment. Coles, for example, gave its 100,000 weekly paid staff a “thank you bonus” for working through the early weeks of the pandemic, which applied to employees working in the supermarkets but also petrol stations and warehouses. Steven Cain, Coles’ CEO, has spoken about how proud he is of their employees for working under unprecedented levels of pressure to make sure Australians could get the groceries that they needed. Woolworths recognized their employees by giving them up to $750 in shares.  

Of course, it wasn’t just stores that were under pressure. Across Australia, online shopping growth in June 2020 topped 72% compared to the same time the previous year, and during Victoria’s second lockdown e-commerce grew 118%. So I think it’s great to see that Australia Post also recognized its employees with thank you payments for mail processing staff, posties, parcel delivery partners, call center workers, and post office licensees, who are all still providing critical services.  

Jess: The supermarkets here in the UK are also doing their bit to celebrate their staff. Morrisons have provided workers with a threefold increase in bonus for the next 12 months, Marks and Spencer are promising an extra 15%, and Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have all pledged a 10% rise. It’s good to see that recognition.  

April: I think retailers have really stepped up here too. In Texas, HEB have introduced permanent pay rises as part of their “Texas Proud Pay Program”, Publix have done the same in Florida. But I’m most impressed with Target. In addition to multiple bonuses and a permanent pay rise, they truly supported their employees. Now, remember, we are all reliant on health insurance here – and all the issues and expenses that go with that. Target offered free telemedicine to all employees, and up to 30 days fully-paid leave for employees over 65 and older or pregnant who felt unsafe working. Currently Target is paying employees for the time it takes them to go and get vaccinated – and providing Lyft rides for those who don’t have access to transport. As a consumer – and very regular Target customer – it makes me feel good about shopping there. 

Retail is one example of an industry where the employer brand meets the consumer brand face-to-face. Employees in Target stores seem to go the extra mile in terms of safety. I feel safer knowing that the company is going above and beyond to keep their employees safe. 

What do you think employers should be doing to make sure we remember the contribution their people have made? 

Fiona: First of all, employers need to be clear that they themselves recognize and remember the contribution their people have made. For large companies who employ a high percentage of essential workers I’d like to see specific reward and recognition programs for frontline workers, and just more celebration of everything their employees have done.  

Then, let’s make sure that message isn’t just internal. Although the threat of COVID has basically gone from Australia, whenever there is a case the country is on edge with state border closures and snap lockdowns. It’s a stressful time for everyone. Businesses can help their employees feel good by championing them in their comms. It can be anything, from celebrating their 400th day of working from home (that’s me!), to hosting virtual wellbeing events, or just making sure stores are clean and the environment is safe and welcoming for the people who come to work there every day.  

Jess: I agree, and I think unfortunately in the UK there’s a real risk of COVID fatigue and ambivalence emerging. The warm feeling people once had towards essential workers is waning. So it’s going to be more important than ever for employers to maintain a sense of recognition, but also of pride for those who have been on the frontline through the pandemic.  

Yes, reward schemes are a great way to achieve this. But budgets are going to be challenging for many organizations in years to come. Perhaps we should think of other ways to keep people motivated and engaged – it can be the small touches, eliciting employee opinions (and acting on them), or different ways of thinking around things like flexible working – considering the whole experience and not just compensation.  

April: It’s such a shame to realize that ambivalence is setting in. I’ve noticed that too. I’m wondering what employers can do to keep their people front of mind. While we are all sick of hearing the word “unprecedented”, people have genuinely worked through an unprecedented time, and dealt with all manner of situations which they never signed up for in the first instance. I’d like to hear more of those stories. How did our grocery store workers keep the shelves stocked? How did the supply chain keep functioning? What did it feel like to face stampedes of people just trying to grab some toilet paper?  

I’m sure that internally businesses are learning from these experiences – and probably adapting and bringing greater agility to some of their processes. Necessity is the mother of invention, right? But I’d like to hear more about the people who’s hard work and quick thinking brought it all to life. I hope as time moves on that organizations will share those stories. 

Jess: You know, that extends beyond essential workers too. We’re all working in different ways. Things that seem second-nature now felt pretty uncomfortable a year ago, but people made it work.  

Likewise, it’s not just employers of essential workers who need to consider their employee comms. The future is still unknown for many workers – when will they return to the office? Is hybrid working the norm now? How does that work? Perhaps one of the greatest learnings will be for organizations to listen to their employees. Because, you’re right, it was the people behind the businesses who kept them going. And the essential workers who kept us all going.