Campus - 23.07.2020 - 00:00 

Systemically relevant but still paid less: an attempt at an explanation

"Systemically relevant professions": This neologism has been cropping up again and again since the start of the coronavirus crisis, accompanied by a discussion about fair pay. Employees in these sectors often demand more pay. But what does the term "systemically relevant" actually mean and does it justify these demands? An article by Noah Bürgin, a student in the course Certificate in Business Journalism.

23 July 2020. "Although I make life and death decisions in my work, I earn around the same as a fully trained sales person without any responsibility," explains Anna, 27, a recently qualified nurse. As such, Anna works in a systemically relevant field, something which became particularly apparent during the coronavirus crisis. But who and what counts as systemically relevant not least depends on the context. When viewed over the long term, relevant for the system – necessary to maintain our society – could apply to virtually all professions, no matter whether it concerns manual workers or strategic consultants. The term "systemically relevant" gained widespread use for the first time during the financial crisis in 2008. During that crisis, certain banks were categorised as systemically relevant and subsequently given state support. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, entirely different institutions and their employees are classed as systemically relevant: mainly in the fields of healthcare, security, traffic, logistics and childcare (based on the list of the canton of Zurich).

Many employees working in social fields or who manufacture important goods tend to fall into the lowest pay brackets. Anna sees this as a trigger for the many discussions around pay in the nursing sector. "People stand on their balconies and clap for us during the coronavirus crisis but at the same time, the SBK (Swiss professional association of care workers) care initiative is not taken seriously at all by policy makers," she says with disappointment. Anna says that she's not actually after more recognition for the nursing profession. "I am very much valued by my patients and receive a lot of recognition on a personal level." It is the lack of appreciation on a political level, which is reflected in the low wages.

Different reasons for pay differences

There are different types of recognition. Dr. Stephan Hostettler, remuneration expert and founder of HCM International, talks about three types of employee recognition: Feedback, development and pay. Alongside pay, feedback on the work performed as well as future career prospects have an influence on employee satisfaction. But what exactly does that have to do with the low wages in the current systemically relevant areas? When looking at the reasons for differences in wages, what first comes to mind are the conditions which are linked to each of the professions, i.e. functional arguments. This includes, for example, the length of time spent training, the knowledge required for carrying out the work, and the level of responsibility needed in each of the roles.

But it also includes the employer's available capital and forms of financing – i.e. how good their financial position is. In short: The more important my position and the more money that is available in my field of business, the more pay I receive, which at first sounds logical. This functional dimension explains many relative wage differences, e.g. why a check-out assistant or cleaner earns less than a doctor. The systemically lower wages of women should not be forgotten in this context. Taking a look at social care professions, which of course involve plenty of responsibility and a long period of training, make it clear that the functional aspect alone is not sufficient as an explanation for lower salaries. Teachers, childcarers or, as in Anna's case, also nurses, often require many years of training and have plenty of responsibility. Having the daily responsibility of caring for other people represents a major psychological burden, and it is not without good reason that social care and teaching professionals are susceptible to burnout. Other reasons which have a crucial impact on wages must therefore be present.

Are the basic conditions more important?

The cultural role and that of the work environment and the impact this has on the expectations of employees should not be underestimated when it comes to remuneration policy. This cultural dimension decides how important the various types of recognition – feedback, development and pay - are. For Anna, the feedback she receives from patients and being able to help them is enough of a motivation to work in the care sector. Her work is fulfilling, even without high monetary remuneration. "If I had wanted to earn a lot of money, I would have studied something else or retrained now. At the moment, I am satisfied with what I am doing," she says. If there was one thing that Anna could change in her professional life, she would employ more nursing staff so that she could spend more time with each individual patient. Being able to meet the needs of the patients would be more important to her than earning a few more pennies.

In the teaching profession, smaller classes and more staff support is being demanded to improve things for the children. Monetary earnings are often pushed into the background. Paradoxically, for social professions in particular, this means that motivation and recognition in these careers are both a heavy burden and an explanation for the low remuneration.

Change in sight?

It is easy to check that the professions discussed receive a comparatively low wage (for example, using the statistical wage calculator Salarium). The fact that these professions have become increasingly important during the crisis is undisputed but their remuneration has not been adjusted. There are many reasons dictating the amount of money which appears in the account at the end of the month – "systemic relevance" is currently not one of them. But the current discussion shows that the desire for higher salaries amongst staff is on the rise. The argument about systemic relevance could indeed indirectly contribute towards better pay, in that it motivates staff to place more importance on remuneration in future.

The one difficulty: as soon as SARS-CoV-2 disappears into the background, other topics will once more dictate the public agenda. The calls for fairer remuneration must therefore remain loud so that they continue to be heard, thus bringing about a change.

Noah Bürgin, 26, is studying for a Masters in Business Innovation. He comes from a family of teachers and has himself often worked in the social sector alongside his degree course.

This article was written as part of the Certificate in Business Journalism.

Image: Adobe Stock / smolaw11

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