"We do what has to be done and I wouldn't have it any other way" - Ireland's underpaid frontline workers
"They’ve understood it. This needs to be done, so we’ll get on and do it."
While many of us stay at home and do our part to help stop the spread of the Coronavirus and Covid-19, essential workers leave their homes every day to join the frontlines of an ongoing, exhausting battle.
Doctors and nurses are being lauded, and applauded, for the work they are doing and hospitals are gratefully receiving food and care packages from members of the public.
Dr Jamie Kearns is taking some time away from Munster Rugby, where he is Head of Medical, to help out in his home city at University Hospital Galway. In a recent House of Rugby appearance, Dr Kearns took time out to highlight the other staff that are playing equally important roles in the effort to stem the virus' impact.
"It's not just me going in and doing a couple of shifts," he said. "It certainly isn't. It's everyone. It's the nursing staff. It's the cleaners going in.
"That's one of the jobs where I think, 'My God, people don't get paid enough to do that'. You're being told, 'Right, there's a really dangerous virus in there. Go in and clean that room every time someone comes in'. I don't think we pay people enough to do that. I think we've missed that a bit. Jesus, that's the important stuff."
Talk to the cleaners, porters and ambulance drivers around the country, though, and they will tell you that they are right where they want to be. Punching in and doing their bit.
"It’s tough going but I have to do it. We do what we have to do. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Each day, tens of thousands of underpaid workers are putting their country first on the Covid-19 frontline pic.twitter.com/bR7Q0PmHgp
— JOE.ie (@JOEdotie) April 16, 2020
Broadly speaking, these frontline workers earn between €23,000 and €37,000 a year. Most fall within the €27,000 to €32,000 bracket, way below the average industrial wage, according to the SIPTU trade union, of just over €41,000.
For years they were undervalued but, as many of them would attest, that can be argued over later. For now, it's time to work.
Fiona Grant is with the Housekeeping Department at Cork University Hospital and she has barely let up since the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 crisis a pandemic, on March 11.
"I’ve never, in all my 30 year here, I’ve never (seen) this. The most we would have had, prior to this, would be MRSA or CPE. CPE was fairly serious but it is nothing like this.
"I’ve worked every day for the last five weeks," Grant says, "except one day. It’s voluntary. Normally I’d work four days, or three and a half days, a week. But I’m in every day for the last five weeks, except one Saturday. But it’s what I have to do and that’s what I’ll continue doing."
Grant admits she, and her work colleagues at CUH, are 'under pressure in a very stressful environment' but getting on with the tasks at hand.
"It’s tough going but I have to do it. We do what we have to do. It has to be done, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."
Up at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, Francis Keane and his workmates are getting used to a new normal that still manages to change every 24 hours.
Keane is a porter in the Accident & Emergency Department at Vincent's and says it 'has been manic' over the past five weeks. "We’ve set up a COVID section of the A&E," he says, "which is now bigger than the normal A&E."
"I do a 12-hour shift in it but all, kind of, shift patterns have been changed to try and deal with it so we have enough people through the night, throughout the 24 hour period to deal with it."
Jobs that used to take five minutes, says Keane, are now taking 25 as he has to de-gown after dealing with one patient and gown back up before dealing with another. "It's a job that often gets busy but now it's constant... the sweat does be rolling off you after an hour in all that (Personal Protective Equipment) gear."
Although he and his colleagues are observing the social distancing measures at the hospital, he has been pleased to see some of that old banter return among the ranks. "When it first kicked off, we were wary. No-one knew what to expect and there was some real fear there. Now there is more knowledge on it and we know what we are facing. It's amazing how quickly you adjust to it all."
"We all know that if we have to go in, we have to go in," Keane adds. "But the lads have all understood it. This needs to be done, so we’ll get on and do it."
If that fear of the unknown is subsiding, for Keane, thoughts of picking up Covid-19 are never far from his mind.
"I think with our lads," he says, "the biggest fear of it is bringing it home to family members. That’s the biggest fear."
When that possibility is put to Anne Sweeney, a domestic cleaner with the Housekeeping Department up at Letterkenny University, she nods her head. "That is the fear.
"That’s the fear with everybody in here. Everyone in here is quite selfless, they come in, they get on with it and you don’t really think about yourself. It’s more when you finish in the evening and you have to go home. You have to take all these steps that you never would have even have thought about before, you know. But it’s all just to protect your family and loved ones at home."
Sweeney has two young boys at home, who are "football-mad" and enjoying the long break from school. Aside from her regular attire of work uniform, apron and gloves, she is not going into rooms and wards be-decked in PPE.
"We stay the two metres away from the patient, if at all possible, and, really, we just clean it the way we would a normal day. You know, there’s no particular… we use ActiChlor every day. Just, that kills it. And then it’s just when the patient goes home, the whole room is just give a good, deep clean down."
"There has been two colleagues of mine that has tested positive for Covid-19," Sweeney continues. "Now, thank God, they’re not too bad. They’re coping. They’re well enough and, please God, they’ll be back at work once they’re clear of it."
The notion of somehow coming through a spell with Covid-19 only to go back into the hospital to work again, when cleared to do so, came up with Sweeney, Keane and Grant. They don't want to sit this one out on the sidelines.
"There’s no way in the world that I’d stay at home," says Grant. "This is what I do. This is what I signed up for and, as I said, this is what I do and I feel comfortable in doing it."
For Sweeney, it is not lost on her that one of the last big battles she had with her work colleagues was to try and get more pay, and acknowledgement, for the work they do.
"I think, what strikes us the most, at the minute," she says, "is that’s it’s not that long ago we were out striking at the gate. You know, looking for more money and more… I suppose it’s now that people realise that we should be valued, and we’re worth what we were looking for."
Grant, meanwhile, insists we do not end this article without this article without giving some credit for the retail staff working in shops and supermarkets across the country. "They're on the frontline too," she insists.
"In times like this," she adds, "everybody comes together so the solidarity is great, I have to say. But yeah, maybe some day soon I might take a day off. I’ll take your advice on that!"