In-work poverty affects many key workers – now is the time to tackle it

Coronavirus has highlighted how vital frontline employees are. Businesses and government must do more to look after them, says Norman Pickavance

Covid-19, like all great threats, is also a great teacher. It is showing us how our lives are woven together and how they are sustained by ordinary – often forgotten – workers: nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, food factory workers, couriers and so many others. In the face of so much suffering and sacrifice, we are realising that we are all connected. 

So how, with our new-found sense of shared responsibility, can we make sure those who we now so clearly rely on, can adequately provide for those who rely on them?

Unfortunately, we are not starting from a good place. Many of the workers we are applauding on our streets as heroes, hale from a growing band of ‘working poor’ – with volatile hours and savings of less than £500 in the bank. Such financial worries should not at a time like this, or at any time, be on the minds of frontline workers such as caregivers, particularly as a University of Pittsburgh study shows such concenrs lead to workers failing to notice risks to patient safety, for example. 

The majority of key workers risking their lives caring for or serving us on a daily basis are women, and the Covid-19 crisis is exposing the significant pay gaps at the lower end of salary scales, and the paucity and cost of childcare provision.

Yet for many years we have watched as the use of food banks soared, and as millions turned to pay-day loan providers. The fact is, the majority of the UK’s poor today are working families, with most children living in poverty coming from working households. Coronavirus has shone a spotlight on this and the problems of fragile employment practices, gig working, our credit system and the exorbitant cost of housing and public transport. 

CEOs and HR leaders must step forward and use this as an opportunity to ask how business and government can think more deeply about systemic solutions to the longer-term issues facing the working poor. It will not be easy. Many businesses are in their own fight for survival. Four million small firms are within weeks of bankruptcy, with many employees being furloughed. But we must use this time to think differently and reset our national priorities to put key workers at the front of the queue.

So what can be done immediately? Let us follow the lead set by Morrisons and give staff a bonus for helping us all through this crisis – a form of recognition worth a thousand platitudes. We should also establish hardship funds and low-cost loans schemes, recognising some may be in households reliant on two incomes, but where one partner can’t work because they are sick, looking after children or have seen a cut to their hours or pay. We need to establish low-cost loans schemes. We could ramp up debt advice, through schemes available from charities including StepChange, CAP and Just Finance, as well as commercial organisations. 

We must also think about holistic wellbeing; people are under greater stress than ever. Research already shows low-paid female workers are five times more likely to experience depression. Now is the time to ‘reset’ our cultures by placing worker wellbeing centre stage, and to think about employment practices and rates of pay that make saving more likely. 

We also need to think about what comes next. We are all learning the hard way that the worst-case scenario does sometimes materialise and provisions do need to be made. Now is the time to think about employment practices and rates of pay that make saving more likely. Childcare must become an urgent strategic imperative. 

We need to reconnect organisations with the desire for greater national unity. ‘Looking out for each other’ has perhaps been the most positive theme to emerge from the early weeks of lockdown. So we must ensure those on the frontline are the beneficiaries of future success, urgently revisiting employee ownership. It is an idea whose time has come, and it might just enable employers to keep short-term costs down while giving staff a stake for when the economy recovers.

They say you should never waste a crisis. World War II, for example, prefaced the arrival of the NHS, education reform and social security. This generation must look to rescue the economy after the pandemic with fresh eyes. We need to start by addressing the needs of key workers who are helping us all get through to the other side. We are forever in their debt. 

Norman Pickavance is a former HR director, author of The Reconnected Leader and co-founder of the Financial Inclusion Alliance