The pandemic’s impact on female essential workers

A recent webinar explored the consequences of Covid-19 on essential workers in female-dominated roles and the actions needed to improve their rights.

Tired nurse wears face mask blue uniform gloves sits on hospital floor. Essential worker feels burnout stress of corona virus frontline


There is no doubt about the importance of essential workers during the pandemic. However, their role has been fundamental for society long before Covid-19 and yet their work has often been undervalued. Essential workers, particularly women, have long dealt with job insecurity, low pay and a lack of appreciation for their work.

“Gender, essential workers and the crisis” panel was held recently by King’s College London’s Global Institute for Women’s Leadership to explore how the pandemic impacted essential workers, particularly those in female-dominated roles, and the consequent actions that are being made to improve their rights.

The panellists were Nikki Pound, Women’s Officer at TUC, Michael Leiblfinger, Care and Migration Researcher at Johannes Kepler University Linz, and Nicole Berner, General Counsel, Service Employees International Union.

Leiblfinger opened the discussion on the current situation in Austria and other European countries regarding migrant live-in carers, often women, whose job is underpaid and overlooked. Berner followed highlighting the current scenario in the US, where workers deemed essential are not treated as such and face a lack of adequate health and safety protection in the workplace.

TUC’s research on essential workers during the pandemic

Particularly interesting were the comments made by Pound on the scenario in the UK. Research conducted during the pandemic by the TUC estimated that nearly 10 million employees in the UK are key workers, approximately 35% of employees.

Women are twice as likely as men to be in a key worker role. Indeed, over 80% of employees working as home carers, nurses, primary and nursery education professionals, teaching assistants and shop floor retailers are women.

Pound says: “Our analysis also shows that women are more likely to be underpaid once they are in key worker occupations, so 41% of female key workers are paid below the living wage in comparison to 32% of male key workers.”

She added: “Here in the UK, due to years of austerity in the public sector and the pay freeze, many essential workers may be perceived to be better paid and in more secure work, but there are actually struggling.”

This is the case for nurses and workers in maternity care and nurseries, whose pay has been decreasing annually for over a decade. These issues, which existed before the pandemic, have worsened since the outbreak with one in five key workers having to cut back on spending since the pandemic began and one in nine saying that their levels of debt have increased. TUC research also found that one million children in key worker households are living in poverty.

Due to the treatment they have received, many women in essential jobs are considering quitting or have already taken steps to change their careers. “Even before this pandemic we already had a hundred thousand vacancies in health and social care alone and research from the National Education Union published this year found that one in three teachers plan to quit due to unmanageable workloads and a lack of respect for the profession,” says Pound.

The pandemic has also increased abuse and harassment of frontline workers. The annual Freedom From Fear survey by Usdaw, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, showed that 79% of shop workers said that the abuse that they faced worsened in 2020 compared to the previous year. 88% experienced verbal abuse, 60% were threatened by a customer and nearly one in 10 were assaulted.

Pound says: “The safety measures required due to the pandemic were cited as the most common trigger for the abuse. We also know that for women, and particularly mums, the combination of being on the frontline and juggling their own caring responsibilities has left many feeling completely broken.”

Echoing the survey conducted by, TUC research from January 2021 found that nine out of 10 working mums, many of whom were key workers, had seen their mental health deteriorate from the impact of trying to juggle work and homeschooling.

Pound said: “This year, 60% of key workers did not have the childcare that they needed to be able to manage work and childcare and summer holidays.” She added: “Similarly, recent research from the TUC, looking at working mums in general found that half of working mums who had made a flexible working request had been fully or partially turned down by their employer.”

What the government should do

In order to reward those who have been doing essential work during the pandemic, the TUC has also highlighted some of the steps the UK government should take.

Firstly, raise the minimum wage to improve the pay of the two million key workers. This was actually announced soon after the event, with the National Minimum Wage increasing next year from £8.36 to £9.18 for those aged 21-22 and the National Living Wage for over-23s rising from £8.91 to £9.50 an hour. Whether this keeps in line with inflation is still to be seen.

The TUC also asked for meaningful pay rises for the over four million public sector key workers – something that was also referred to in last week’s Budget although the detail has yet to be announced – as well as the banning of zero-hours contracts. Pound said: “It’s often cited by people in support of zero-hours contracts that it is a great form of flexibility, but it’s flexibility in one direction for the benefit of the employer and not the person who’s working.”

During the pandemic, the number of workers on zero-hours contracts increased to over a million for the first time in the UK and the majority of workers on zero-hours contracts are women from ethnic minorities in the care sector and increasingly in retail and supply chain industries.

Not being able to predict their finances leads more of these workers into debt as they try to bridge the gaps in their working hours. Pound said: “Workers are also worried about using their voice and making demands because they know that they’ll be penalised by their employer by having their hours removed.”


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