Sat | Dec 4, 2021

M.A. Hinchcliffe | COVID-19: Front-line workers, essential workers: Who are they?

Published:Thursday | March 18, 2021 | 12:06 AM

The coronavirus pandemic has raised awareness of words, phrases, and terminologies, some of which have been part of our everyday language, but perhaps we never paid much attention to their meanings and practical application in our daily lives. We simply took them for granted. We are now forced to pay attention, as some bear direct relation to our way of life in business, employment, and even our very existence in the era of the pandemic.

It is against this background that this article delves into the designation of front-line and essential workers, as we now hear of them frequently in addressing resource allocation for mitigating the coronavirus pandemic. Definitions are important as they underpin the groupings or categories of much-needed professional and skilled workforce who must report to work despite threats, known and unknown, and with effects on their own health and well-being, and that of their families.

FRONT-LINE WORKERS

Who is a front-line worker? This is an employee within designated essential services or industry who must physically show up to their jobs; a subset of workers in designated front-line occupations who face a variety of health risk in their workplace. During a crisis or disaster, they keep the economy in motion and the rest of us safe. While we mostly hear the designation ascribed to workers in healthcare, there is actually an expansive list of such persons who we may not see, recognise, or even think about.

There is no legal definition of who is a front-line worker, but the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) local and regional bodies make the distinction when situations arise, and clarity is needed to provide resources accordingly. A list may include, but not limited to, workers in healthcare, disaster mitigation, security and correctional services, water, power generation, food, sanitation and transportation, among others. The distinction is usually made depending on the situation being addressed. The mentioned list is inexhaustive, as it is used herein just as a means of illustration.

ESSENTIAL WORKERS

As the designation implies, essential workers are the personnel needed to maintain essential services. The question then is what are essential services? Wikipedia states, “Essential service may refer to a class of occupations that have been legislated by a government to have special restrictions in regard to labour actions, such as not been allowed to strike.” For further clarity I turned to the ILO, which states that “essential services in the strict sense depends to a large extent on the particular circumstances prevailing in a country.” It further states that the meaning is not absolute, because in certain circumstances, a non-essential service may become essential. For example, in the case of a prolonged strike situation which extends beyond certain scope, thus endangering the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population, essential service may be subject to definition by a public authority or by a court. (Reference: The Scope of Essential Services: Laws, Regulation and Practices; Timo Knabe and Carlos Carrion – Crespo; ILO Office, Geneva.)

It is therefore to be noted that front-line workers are also part of the workforce in essential industries.

ESSENTIAL AND FRONT-LINE OCCUPATIONS IN THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

From as far back as February 2020, the nation was alerted to who could move about as front-line and essential workers when various sectors were exempted from curfews. We then heard outcry from other groupings not so named that they too fall in these classifications, e.g., media and legal, among others. Non-essential workers were also defined and placed in a category to work from home as the spread of the virus spiked and other measures were instituted. For example, in the case of the so called ‘lockdown’ of St Catherine and the installation of border checks/checkpoints, measures such as ‘only essential workers who did not display symptoms’ were allowed to pass through. Several press conferences later, the use of ‘front-line’ and ‘essential’ were, in some instances, used interchangeably. With St Catherine being a dormitory for workers from neighbouring parishes and further afield, it begged for the further classification of workers – ‘essential’ vs ‘front-line’ was heard more and more.

The prime minister then declared the exempted groupings not bound by the curfew to include parliamentary staff, workers in the electricity, public works, sanitation, civil aviation and telecommunications sectors. As the need for staff in businesses grew, other sectors were also declared to be exempt, such as Customs, correctional officers, the JUTC, shipping, BPOs, private security guards, tourism, bauxite, the judiciary, couriers, transporters of agricultural produce, livestock, and the poultry industry, among others. (‘Various sector workers exempted from curfew’, Jamaica Gleaner, Wednesday, April 1, 2020). This brought some clarity as to which business or industry is classified as essential. It is from the designated essential services that this classification is embedded in the ILO’s The Scope of Essential Services: Laws, Regulation and Practices. Member states adopt and implement the stated principles and business from which the front-line workers emerged. In the case of these workers during the coronavirus pandemic, the most commonly known front-line workers are the health and medical professions, security force, fire brigade, sanitation workers, public health teams.

The variety and composition of the workforce form the determinants for the allocation of resources, among which are special monetary allowances, levels of personal protective equipment and working hours. Understanding that benefits for employees/workers are either enshrined in law, negotiated through worker representation and, in some cases, by the employer’s practice.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resultant disease, COVID-19, is influencing discussions on how to treat with the spread of infection and workplace response to infected workers. While new protocols had to be developed, others tweaked or adopted from approaches to other infectious diseases, one thing is clear is that there are still grey areas in this regard. Among these are the application of insurance – health, worker’s compensation, and disability caused by COVID-19.

The matter of work-from-home order for workers from select industries came in for experimentation, at best, as a means of controlling the spread of the virus. Lessons are still being learned and in this regard, the jury is still out on the relevance and effectiveness. The determinants for who is a front-line and who is an essential worker as the basis for special benefits and privileges, will continue well beyond the current situation, as no one knows what pandemic, disaster or another untoward occurrence may again disturb the status quo.

In the meantime, laws need to be amended, business practices reviewed, and employees’/workers’ rights strengthened, whether by representation or personal knowledge and choice. The coronavirus pandemic serves as a trigger to revert to how laws are made, as new ones may also emanate as a result of grey areas needing to be codified.

M.A. Hinchcliffe is CEO and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Ltd Group. Email: ceo@manpowerja.com