The invisible army in the war against COVID-19

Lower-paid professions dominate front-line work

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, before the extent of the epidemic was known, panic spread through the Cayman Islands like a viral strain of its own.

Nowhere was that more evident than at the supermarkets, where shoppers rushed the stores to stock up on supplies as though a Category 5 hurricane was building in the western Atlantic.

At that time, international news networks were broadcasting footage of makeshift funeral parlors in Italy. Public health officials were quietly computing statistics, projecting that almost 1,000 Cayman Islands residents could die.

As the first cases began to be announced, government urged people to stay at home for their own safety.

For some workers – many of them at the lower-end of the wage scale and in traditionally less-prestigious professions – that wasn’t an option.

Police ensure customers adhere to social distancing rules as a large line builds up outside Foster's in West Bay
Police ensure customers adhere to social distancing rules as a large line builds up outside Foster’s in West Bay in the early days of the crisis.

In the face of a chaotic and potentially dangerous situation, they didn’t blink.

“We didn’t have many sick calls or people not willing to come into work,” said Woody Foster, managing director of Foster’s.

“The staff just got on with it. They were absolutely incredible.”

It wasn’t just at the supermarkets. 

Garbage workers, police officers, doctors, nurses, pizza delivery drivers and gas station attendants all reported for duty.

Dispatches from the Front Lines

“Some of these jobs are invisible jobs,” says Foster, who is also the president of the Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of the time you don’t even know they exist.

“You don’t think about the girl who checks you out at the till or the guy that puts the produce on the shelves. It just happens.”

Soldiers in scrubs

Cayman’s battle with the coronavirus is often compared to a war against an unseen enemy.

The difference in this case is the soldiers are often female and the uniforms are nursing scrubs, a supermarket apron or a pharmacist’s lab coat.

Globally, data suggests women take up a disproportionate number of front-line jobs deemed essential for the coronavirus crisis.

Precise statistics are not available for Cayman but by simple observation it is clear that women dominate the public-facing roles.

That doesn’t mean only women are working. At Foster’s, for example, there is a more or less 50-50 split, with 370 men and 367 women on staff.

But while it is the men who do the heavy lifting in the warehouse, it is predominantly women on the check-outs and in the aisles.

Shanay Bryan fills multiple roles at Foster’s.

The same is true at Hurley’s and at Kirk Market where the cashier at the till is, more often than not, a woman.

In healthcare, according to data from Cayman’s Economics and Statistics Office, the gender gap is even more pronounced.

Almost 70% of people in the profession are female.

In the trenches

At the Cayman Islands Hospital, a new respiratory ward is effectively sealed off from the rest of the medical facility. 

To extend the battle analogy, this small unit is as close to the front lines as it gets.

When they arrive at the ‘COVID ward’, health professionals scrub up in a sterile prep room and don gown, mask, gloves and face shield. 

Their jobs involve daily contact with the sickest and potentially most infectious patients on the island.

Before they leave, the healthcare workers wash with sterile soaps in new purpose-built showers.

However, instead of going home, they return to empty hotels, where they live in isolation from their families and friends.

For Alia Huizinga-Wright, a nurse on the ward, it is a privilege to serve. 

“Every staff worker, every healthcare worker and every aide that works here chose to work here,” she said.

“Everybody wants to be here and caring for these patients.”

Alia Huizinga-Wright

Healthcare workers have always received respect for the role they play in society – even more so since the pandemic began.

But Huizinga-Wright says the work of the support staff that people don’t ordinarily think of – the housekeepers, the laundry services, the porters – is just as vital.

It is a similar story outside the doors of the hospital.

“I have a newfound respect personally for people that work at gas stations, people that work at supermarkets, people that work at banks,” she said.

“They don’t have all the protective equipment that we have and, if anything, they are almost putting themselves at a greater risk. 

“It has been eye-opening to see how much we rely on people we typically don’t think about and thank every day.”

Essential work doesn’t translate to essential pay

Another feature of essential work, based on international data, is that it is often at the lower end of the pay spectrum.

Earnings data by sector is not available in sufficient detail in Cayman to do a proper analysis, but the job categories designated essential are the same the world over, and the pay in Cayman is broadly in line with international trends.

While some senior doctors and police commanders may be well compensated, law enforcement and healthcare are not professions that most people pursue for the financial benefits.

Some of the other jobs, from drive-through waitresses to supermarket shelf-stackers, are paid at or close to minimum wage.

Steve McIntosh, owner of CML Recruitment, said front-line work was often manual in nature and less well compensated than white-collar work, much of which has moved from office to home.

He said ‘hazard pay’ could be one way to help redress the imbalance at a time when many workers are reckoning with unquantifiable risks to keep the country running.

“I think the country owes a debt of gratitude to everyone that has put themselves in harm’s way to provide essential services,” he said.

“Many people are frustrated about having been forced to stay home. I’m not sure how many of us would have been happier to work around the clock in a public-facing role.”

A little respect

Pay, while a valuable motivator, is not the only metric. Many of the workers who spoke to the Cayman Compass for this feature said they were walking a little taller as a consequence of the role they are playing.

In some ways, if only temporarily, the COVID-19 crisis is leading to a re-assessment of the value of certain professions.

“The respect a person gets is far-too-often correlated with their financial success rather than their contribution to society,” said McIntosh.  

Landfill worker Mario Moya believes he and his colleagues don’t always get the respect they deserve.

For Mario Moya, an employee with the Department of Environmental Health at the George Town landfill, working with refuse is one of the most thankless tasks in Cayman.

Sometimes, before this period, he didn’t want to wear his uniform out in public, because all he got was criticism about late garbage pick-ups.

He hopes, when this crisis is over, people will recall the role that he and his colleagues have played in keeping the streets clean. 

“What I want them to remember is how very important we are to them – a little bit more consideration from John Public would be nice,” he said. 

“Sometimes pat a man on the shoulder and say ‘good job’. That can make a man feel good for the rest of the day.”

  • Videography and additional reporting by Andrel Harris

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