Closing the divide: essential workers, Australian cities and COVID-19

Posted October 07, 2021

SGS Economics and Planning essential workers and covid19 2

Essential workers have been keeping Australia’s cities moving during the COVID-19 pandemic – and the structure of our cities has put many in harm's way. Urban policy needs to adapt quickly to address the underlying inequalities across Australia’s spatial geographies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not affected Australians equally. Data clearly shows the pandemic has exacerbated underlying social and spatial inequalities throughout Australia; essential workers, in particular, have been hit hard by the pandemic. Urban policy needs to address pressing social and spatial inequalities before the divide becomes too wide to close.

COVID-19 has exposed underlying geographies dividing Australian cities

One of the leading public health responses to managing the risks of the pandemic are broad stay at home orders, including requiring employers to direct their staff to work from home if reasonably practical. These restrictions limit the reasons for leaving home, reduce gatherings and movements across the city and minimise interaction between people to stop the spread of the virus. The health responses have been similar globally to protect public health and reducing the impact on health systems.

SGS previously investigated where people are working from home and how this could reshape cities and regions post-pandemic. We also investigated the impact of the pandemic on the casualised, low paid workforce. While many people can move their jobs to their homes, others must leave their homes to work. In the public health response, these people are called essential workers.

Essential workers are in a mix of jobs across health services, education, supermarkets, freight and delivery drivers, some retail, public transport workers, emergency services, caregivers, food, logistics and construction. They are often low paid jobs that have a citywide, statewide, and national role in supporting the functioning of communities and economies. These are the people in jobs that require them to leave their homes to help maintain some normal functions for others, which presents a greater risk to the workers themselves and their families of being exposed to COVID-19.

New data shows underlying inequalities for essential workers

Location of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic

This analysis of essential workers brings a spatial perspective to urban policy to address social and spatial inequalities. It identifies the home location of essential workers, and the likely percentage of essential workers by small area (SA2) that may also need to travel to perform their work. This is based on government essential worker definitions1 assumptions regarding workers ability to work from home and 2016 ABS Census resident worker by industry data.

The spatial patterns of essential workers across Australian capital cities are clear.

In Sydney, most essential workers live and work in the south-west and western Sydney. In Melbourne, the highest proportion of essential workers are in the north and west growth areas on the city's outer edges. In both Sydney and Melbourne, these are also the locations where the highest number of infections were recorded during the outbreaks of the COVID-19 Delta variant in mid to late 2021.

Essential workplaces quickly became locations of high COVID-19 transmission and have experienced the largest outbreaks. These are the workers that have been living with COVID-19 from the outset. It is these groups, and their households, that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The pandemic has further exposed the underlying inequalities across the cities.

These are also the locations in our cities with less developed social connectors that support the creation and sharing of social capital. Social connectors are explored in a report by CRED for Greater Sydney Commission that highlights the older, more established locations with higher levels of social connectors that can contribute to increased sharing of social capital. The pandemic has further exposed the underlying inequalities across the cities.

Locations with higher proportions of essential workers are also those locations that were developed in a less compact way, with social infrastructure, open space, transport, and other social connectors being built further distances from homes, and provision of social infrastructure not necessarily matching the level of population growth, making it harder for the sharing of social capital.

These are also the locations that have higher numbers of people living in each household and lower numbers of general practitioners.

General practitioners per 1,000 people, Sydney

Top 8 local government areas with highest COVID-19 case numbers.

Distribution of households by the number of people, Sydney

Top 8 local government areas with highest COVID-19 case numbers.

General practitioners per 1,000 people, Melbourne

Top 8 local government areas with highest COVID-19 case numbers.

Distribution of households by the number of people, Melbourne

Top 8 local government areas with highest COVID-19 case numbers.

Other cities can learn from the experience in Sydney and Melbourne

There is an opportunity for other Australian cities – Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Canberra and Hobart – to learn from the experience in Sydney and Melbourne with the highest levels of COVID-19 infections in essential workplaces and homes of essential workers. There are clear lessons for prioritising workplace safety, including focusing vaccine rollouts on essential workers and providing access to health services in locations near where essential workers live and/or work. The initial mapping and analysis provided shows that:

  • Suburbs in and around Adelaide’s northern LGAs of Playford and Salisbury have an oversized share of service sector workers, while in the outer south, parts of central Onkaparinga (in the vicinity of Noarlunga Centre) are also overrepresented by these workers. At the other end of the spectrum, the share of essential workers in the relatively socio-economically advantaged inner eastern and inner southern suburbs is relatively low.
  • In Greater Perth, essential workers are more densely located in the outer growth suburbs such as Armadale and Gosnells in the southeast, Baldivis in the south, Ellenbrook in the northeast and Two Rocks to the northwest. The wealthier western and river suburbs had the lowest shares of essential workers.
  • Greater Brisbane has a higher proportion of essential workers across the city’s southern fringe, particularly in Logan, Ipswich and the emerging Ripley Valley. Most noteworthy are the Logan suburbs of Kingston, Marsden and Crestmead. To Brisbane’s north, there are large proportions of essential workers stretching from Strathpine, through the Bayside suburbs and up to as far as Maroochydore and Nambour in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
  • In the ACT, excluding areas with very low population numbers such as Fyshwick and Namadgi, the area with the greatest share of essential workers is Duntroon, due to the Defence and Army presence there. Elsewhere in Canberra, essential workers had the highest concentration in the suburbs in Tuggeranong and central Woden around the Canberra Hospital and Department of Health.
  • Greater Hobart has a higher proportion of essential workers in northern suburbs and towns in particular around the Derwent Valley but also extending through the Southern Midlands down the eastern edge of the Derwent River to Risdon Vale. This includes suburbs around the northern end of the Derwent River such as New Norfolk, Brighton, Rokeby and Risdon Vale which includes the Risdon Prison Complex. These are areas of the most relative socio-economic disadvantage compared to the Hobart City Centre are and inner areas such as Sandy Bay, Battery Point, North Hobart and South Hobart.

The spatial patterns of essential workers vary by gender

Enduring gendered inequalities at work and at home have been exacerbated through the pandemic. These experiences are highlighted in recent research by Foley and Cooper and the Grattan Institute. The impacts include the higher rates of job losses, increases in unpaid work and the higher rates of casual employment that were excluded from government support. The mapping of essential workers by location in our cities also shows differences by gender that could inform policy responses.

The analysis identifies 45 per cent of workers are defined as essential who are required to travel for work. Of these, 25 per cent are male, and 20 per cent female. However, these vary by industry and location. Sixty per cent of male essential workers are in traditional industrial work and construction. Over fifty per cent of female essential workers are in health and education.

Spatially the analysis by gender shows higher concentrations of male essential workers, whereas female essential workers are generally more distributed across the city regions.

Lessons for planning longer-term resilience

Beyond the direct health response, this experience also presents many lessons to adapt with new approaches to planning and infrastructure and services that adapt to the risks of COVID-19, and future shocks and stresses. These are important lessons for strategic planning and planning for longer-term resilience in our cities and region and include:

  • increasing affordable housing in all locations through the city
  • ensuring access to safe public transport to provide for travel to essential work – beyond office-based commuters
  • improving the quality and accessibility of public open space, recreation facilities
  • increasing opportunities for greater community connections, and
  • flexible and innovative planning tools that respond to the local need.

We have an opportunity not just to be grateful for the essential workers keeping our cities moving during extended lockdowns but to reset how we plan to address the underlying inequalities in our city’s spatial geographies.

Suburb Snapshot: Hume, Melbourne

Regions like Hume were disproportionately exposed to COVID-19 through work so the rest of Victoria could safely lock down, suppress the spread of COVID-19 and protect the healthcare system.

Hume is one of Australia's fastest-growing and culturally-diverse communities in Victoria. Analysis of essential workers in Hume suggests around 54 per cent of Hume resident workers are likely to be essential workers that may also need to travel to perform their work. This compares to the Greater Melbourne average of 47 per cent, and 35 per cent in Port Phillip.

The higher levels of the spread of COVID-19 in Hume can also be explained by the higher household sizes.

In 2020 the City of Hume has 240,000 people (about 4.5 per cent of Greater Melbourne’s population) (Source. ABS Regional Population). Hume has an average household size of 3.1 compared to 2.7 for Greater Melbourne. While it contains around 3.9 per cent of all households in Greater Melbourne, it has 8.5 per cent of households with 6 or more people and 10 per cent of households that have 8 or more people.

These underlying labour market and household size characteristics are exacerbated by lower levels of health infrastructure and services, one example if the lower rates of GP and Pharmacy services.

Based on the 2016 Census, Hume has 2.9 GPs and 3.3 Pharmacists per 1000 residents (ranked 27/31 and 16/31 respectively in terms of Melbourne LGAs). This is compared to the Melbourne average of 4.0 GPs and 3.5 Pharmacists per 1000 residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exploited Hume’s weaknesses, accentuated society’s fault lines and worsened the city’s divide.

SGS Economics and Planning essential workers and covid19 hume melbourne

[1] SGS Economics and Planning based this analysis on Victorian Government definitions of “essential workers” align to two-digit ANZIC industry classifications, and an assessment of what per cent of those workers would also need to travel to undertake their work. This is a high-level indicative analysis to demonstrate the spatial differences across the city. Any analysis to inform a specific public health or investment response would benefit from more detailed location-specific definitions. The definitions of what is essential are broad and not consistent nationally. Each State Government has prepared definitions with some inconsistencies as to what is deemed to be “essential”.

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