Some civil servants fearful ahead of return to work — survey

THERE seems to be fear among some public sector employees, who have been working from home since March, of being infected with the novel coronavirus as they prepare to return to their offices next week.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute at The University of the West Indies, in collaboration with the Jamaica Civil Service Association, 104 of the 289 public sector workers surveyed from across the island said they fear being in contact with individuals and possibly contracting and spreading the virus to others unknowingly, since some carriers of the virus are asymptomatic.

Another 90 were worried about the limited supply of personal protective equipment, enforcement of social distancing rules, sanitising and conducting of mandatory testing, while 87 expressed uncertainty with return to work and work operations as well as the unavailability of online access to conduct work activities, when asked about the aspects of work environment or situation they were most concerned about with the advent of COVID-19.

“Another biting concern of some respondents is the the lack of concern for employees who have to still commute to work. The risk and safety of staff are not taken into account, as business places are closed to the public yet workers are being asked to expose themselves on a daily basis to come into the office. The travel restrictions and curfew cause a hindrance, as some respondents live out of parish while others have to contend with the reluctance and unreliability of taxi drivers or other public transportation workers to carry passengers,” the survey’s authors wrote.

It was recommended by the civil servants that the Government consider providing transportation for those employed to the public service.

The survey was collected over an approximate period of three weeks (April 22-May 8, 2020) and the data analysed using coding, with any questions that were unable to be quantified being analysed descriptively. Seventy per cent of the respondents were female, and majority, or 51 per cent, were in the 36 to 50 age group, 28 per cent in the age group 18 to 35, and the others were 51 t0 65 years old.

Danny Roberts, who heads the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute, told the Jamaica Observer that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of the workplace. In fact, he warned that calling back employees who had been working from home should be done based on proper analysis.

Roberts said, too, that employers must ensure that the required protocols, such as social distancing, sanitisation and wearing of masks, are observed, to ensure that mistakes made during the 1918 Spanish flu — when rules were relaxed and another wave of the virus caused millions of deaths — are not repeated.

Roberts also called for the Government to consider a wage subsidy which, he said, will allow more workers to keep their jobs.

In the meantime, civil servants say they have faced a range of issues since the implementation of several Government protocols in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

Some 24 per cent of those surveyed said they had limited movement/access to public transportation, while 21 per cent said they faced financial constraints as they were unable to pay utility bills and general day-to-day expenses.

As well, there have been several complaints since schools were ordered closed in March of parents being faced with higher food and utility bills.

According to the survey, 13 per cent of the civil servants complained that they were faced with increased prices and lack of resources provided by the State, as they had lengthy wait times, causing limited access to goods and services. This would still apply, as businesses still place a limit on the number of people allowed to enter an establishment at any one time. In addition, most businesses now conduct temperature checks and operate sanitisation stations, which contribute to wait time.

Additionally, both those assigned to work from home and others required to operate from the office had concerns. Amounting to 14 per cent together, they complained of inefficiencies working from home on one hand, and difficulties with commuting to and from work on the other hand.

Five per cent of the respondents said they had challenges in providing educational and extra-curricular activities for children while at home, and four per cent complained of mental distress and anxiety due to isolation and lack of socialisation.

Said the authors of the survey: “Respondents expressed several challenges, including limitations due to the lockdown and curfew period, as well as the lack of public transportation options. Additionally, as a result of a reduction in productivity and work hours, as well as some salaries including a travel allowance, working from home reduced income for some workers. Productivity is affected as sufficient resources are not available to effectively work from home in a virtual environment; and management has been reluctant to make necessary work arrangements to ensure safety of workers. And, there were health concerns as individuals fear exposure of themselves or family members to the virus, or being asymptomatic and spreading the virus to others.”

Respondents also shared tips with the Government, such as improving how they communicate with the public and health sector workers — whether through digital media or traditional means — and that Government consult with front-line workers, the public, the Church, and other officials such as mayors, councillors and the Opposition when deliberating decisions.

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