Who is deemed an 'essential' worker under Australia's COVID-19 rules?

Pharmacies and supermarkets have been given special permissions to open 24 hours a day in NSW while Australia tackles the coronavirus crisis. Their workers are deemed essential, along with a range of other employees across the country.

Pharmacist Lachlan Rose

Sydney pharmacist Lachlan Rose is considered an essential worker. Source: Supplied

Unlike many Australian workers who are now allowed to work from home during the coronavirus shutdown, pharmacist Lachlan Rose’s daily routine hasn’t changed.

He manages Manly Vale Pharmacy in Sydney’s north and told SBS News since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, he has continued to turn up for work and he and his colleagues have been run off their feet.

“It's been like nothing I've ever known in my 15 plus years in pharmacy,” he said.

“We have worked harder than we've ever worked.”

Pharmacists are considered “essential workers”, a term used by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to describe people who are still required to go to work during the national shutdown.

And on Wednesday, pharmacies and supermarkets in NSW were given the green light to trade 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as the country needs them to. 

Who is considered to be an 'essential' worker?

At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr Morrison said essential workers meant: "it can be essential in a service, whether it's a nurse or a doctor or a schoolteacher, or a public servant who is working tonight to ensure that we can get even greater capacity in our Centrelink offices, working until 8[pm] under the new arrangement in the call centres - these are all essential jobs.”

"People stacking shelves - that is essential. People earning money in their family when another member of their family may have lost their job and can no longer earn - that's an essential job."

Supermarket workers
Supermarket staff are considered essential workers. Source: AAP

Professor of Public Health at the Queensland University of Technology, Gerard Fitzgerald, said the definition of an essential worker is broad and hard to define.

“If you think about people in emergency departments, ambulance, paramedics being critical to the management of any outbreak in our community, we also need people who keep them there,” he said.

“It's that backroom stuff that we tend to forget about - the power, the fuel, the water, the food - all those sort of things that are essential to keep that person operating. So it is that consequential essential workforce that's also important.”

How can essential workers stay safe?

Supermarket workers are an example of people deemed essential to working through the shutdown, manning checkouts or stacking shelves.

People employed by government services such as Medicare and Centrelink are also working in response to the high numbers of enquiries during this time.

Delivery and garbage truck drivers, as well as postmen-and-women, will also continue their essential services.

Professor Fitzgerald said the best way to support the workers, and keep them safe during the peak of this pandemic is to ease the number of people using their service at once.

“It’s about de-congesting the place so the essential workers have got some room," he said. 

“Reduce the demands being placed on the supermarkets because what we don't want is a crowd of people waiting at a checkout.” 

A pharmacist at Manly Vale pharmacy wears a "face shield" while consulting with customers.
A pharmacist at Manly Vale pharmacy wears a "face shield" while consulting with customers. Source: Supplied

Mr Rose said pharmacists are at the “coalface” of the pandemic.

“We are in one of the most exposed environments in the pharmacy because people will come to us when they're sick … we are open all the time and you don’t need appointments.

“So there's lots of parts there that make us more susceptible to coming in contact with someone with COVID-19.”

His workplace has implemented new measures to minimise the risk to his staff.

It has enforced a 1.5-metre social distancing rule using tape on the ground and all staff now wear “face shields” to protect themselves. 

What about teachers and schools?

Mr Morrison has also repeatedly said schools would remain open and he would meet with unions to ensure there are arrangements to protect teachers and staff.

He has pushed all Australian states and territories to keep schools open for these essential workers.

Professor Fitzgerald agreed keeping schools open is the right approach, but admits it is contentious.

“It's one where they've been balancing the risk of confronting people from the spread through schools, which we think is the lower risk in this particular context than normal, against the impact that would have on enabling our essential workers to continue to attend work,” he said.

What about the media?

Many journalists and news services are also considered essential workers, meaning they are still required to attend their place of work to put together breaking news for TV, Radio and Digital platforms to keep people informed.

SBS is one such media company continuing its services. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for SBS said: “with the spread of COVID-19, our trusted news and language services are even more critical in ensuring communities have access to accurate and up-to-date information. We remain committed to the continued broadcast of emergency and vital public health and safety information.”

To keep employees who must be in the office safe, SBS has implemented “significant preventative measures” including flexible working arrangements, social distancing rules, a suspension of non-business critical meetings and daily sanitisation throughout the SBS offices.

after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. An SBS spokesperson said as a result of social distancing measures the person had minimal contact with other employees in the office and after a thorough clean the newsroom was reopened on Wednesday. 

'The risk is never going to be zero'

While essential workplaces around the country are trying to reduce the risk of spreading the virus as much as possible, Professor Fitzgerald said there will always be some level of risk to essential workers.

“They’re all taking a risk, there are little things that can be done, but we have to say that none of this guarantees anything,” he said.

“It's all about reducing risk, but the risk is not ever going to be zero.”

“There is a risk that more people are going to be infected by this. All that we can do is try to minimise that risk.”

Mr Rose admits his “greatest concern” as a small community pharmacy is that if any of his staff get sick, they will have to close their doors.

Their job as essential workers has become even more paramount as they help to support in-demand doctors and he believes their services may be required even more in the future. 

“I think we see now in these times of need, we need to have the shared load across multiple health services and if that means pharmacists doing more vaccinating or more point-of-care testing to help take the pressure off doctors, then I think we need to explore that more.”

Australians must stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people. Indoors, there must be a density of no more than one person per four square metres of floor space.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at 

7 min read
Published 26 March 2020 at 2:33pm
By Amelia Dunn
Source: SBS