Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

A new pay structure for frontliners



When we think of frontliners, they’re usually people like nurses and teachers, but as we are now all aware, they do also include people on checkouts and shelf stockers at supermarkets, cleaners and delivery persons. These people are keeping the show on the road, but they include some of the lowest status and lowest paid people in our community. For example, there has been some good television coverage of delivery people who drive interstate trucks who were, for a period, unable even to get a decent meal when they stopped at remote country towns.

Man cleaning hospital floor (Credit: Cavan Images / Getty)

However, it is my own recent experience that has taught me to think about frontliners with an entirely new respect. We have a man who cleans our house and helps with the garden once a week because, being old, we find cleaning the floor and weeding on our knees is now beyond our capacity. Of course, we agreed during the severest shut-down period to forgo his services and we found it hard to manage. It was not just the anxiety about the dirt in a period when we were supposed to be extra clean, but the mess in our confining environment that made us feel depressed. We have now welcomed him back to his usual weekly time slot but with an important difference.

These days we pay him considerably more per hour because we have come to appreciate his amazing frontliner skills. When we thought about his capacity to judge how to put our dishes away, which cleaning process worked best for our cramped kitchen floor, how to induce our compost to work better, where to put the pile of CDs that had fallen down and which part of the house required his most intensive attention, we realised that the skill of a anyone who cleans our house is considerable and deserves greater respect. It is one of timing, of a subtle understanding of how a space works for its residents, and an ability to prioritise complex tasks. 

It made me think of my own experience of project management, policy writing, backgrounding for speakers and editing for publication. I’ve so enjoyed it and, at the same time, I’ve received far more pay than most frontliners. How does doing well and having great fun in a tertiary degree, and then a bit of thinking, writing and persuading from mostly a comfortable chair with liberal coffee breaks qualify me to receive this more generous remuneration, I began to ask myself. Faced with someone else’s dirty house, a desperately ill person on a ventilator, or an articulated truck on an inter-state mission, I’d be totally useless.

I thought of my daughter making hundreds of crucial life-changing decisions every weekday with her primary school students and I remembered how so many of her colleagues have given up teaching over the years (the teacher turnover is terrible) because of lack of remuneration, lack of reasonable rest breaks and very little positive feedback from seniors or even from the community. I thought of how so many of our frontliners are women, already disadvantaged and over-loaded in many documented ways. So what can we do?

My suggestion, though outrageous to traditional economists, is to change our salary structure to favour frontliners. Think of how our younger people are economically disadvantaged in Australia compared with our older cohorts. This has been documented by think tanks like the Australia Institute and noted by commentators like Peter Martin. Our frontliners are usually our younger workers. They are the ones trying to pay rent or save a deposit on a house. They are the ones trying to cope with children, the costs of child care and space for their accommodation and play. And yet we depend on them in a crisis like COVID-19, and we pay them less.


'If we don’t recognise our dependence on frontliners with our top levels of remuneration, where will we be when the next epidemic comes?'


What I am proposing is preposterous but sensible. I think that more senior people who are managers, supporting and supervising staff, policy workers and even CEOs should accept a diminishing rate of pay as their seniority increases. Why? I hear you ask. They’d never accept that!

Well, why wouldn’t they? Some of the most respected workplace research was completed and published some decades ago by Michael Marmot using massive samples of UK public servants. He found indisputably that more senior people, people in positions of greater responsibility and power were the ones to live the longest and suffer the least ill health. It makes sense when you think about it. When you feel a sense of control in your life, you feel better and you stay in better health. It’s when we feel truly out of control that our health, along with everything else, deteriorates.

I think this kind of evidence, reproduced all over the world since Marmot’s work, offers support for my proposal. Why should we pay people more when their work is going to make them more healthy? Why don’t we have a sliding scale that means that, as we have more power in our work, we accept a lower salary, secure in the knowledge that the hard times in the front line when we were younger are over. Our only responsibility is then to help those front liners which is an honour and a privilege and surely does not require greater remuneration.

Anyway, in general, as we grow older, our family responsibilities grow less onerous and we don’t need the massively inflated, inequity-causing levels of pay related to seniority that we have seen reported in the press. As evidence of its unpopularity one need only attend an AGM of any of the major Australian companies. The support for shareholder motions calling for reductions in bonuses and salary increases is becoming more vocal every year.

In my ideal world, in the world that we could move to as we move out of the pandemic, I would like to see companies and employers, who like to advertise that they have social justice concerns, articulate their commitment to a new salary structure. It could be called the ‘frontliner salary structure’ and it could have its pay grades reduce with seniority in roles other than those at the frontline.

I think it would rapidly attract the best young practitioners in any field to any institution that so-advertised. Hence such a pay policy would increase its productivity, an outcome which seems to be the goal of governments, businesses and non-government agencies alike. It would then of course have unfathomable flow-on effects in the whole society, but I, for one, would be prepared to predict that they would be wonderful for us all.

If we don’t recognise our dependence on frontliners with our top levels of remuneration, where will we be when the next epidemic comes? Nurses and schoolteachers are not going to recommend that their children follow in their footsteps. So much hard and often dangerous work with low pay! We might well find that we become a country of CEOs and MBAs with nothing left to manage. Let’s take this opportunity to reshape our pay structures. It’ll be prickly but well worth it.



Jill SuttonJill Sutton has written for government policy, for NGOs committed to social justice, for statutory bodies, for a leading activist, for her partner's sermons, for local poetry publications, for the Canberra Times and for Eureka Street. Her favourite things are teaching at any level and conversation over shared meals.

Main image credit: Man cleaning hospital floor (Credit: Cavan Images / Getty)

Topic tags: Jill Sutton, frontliners



submit a comment

Existing comments

Jill, I agree wholeheartedly with your proposal. It would be hard to wean the CEOs off their obscenely high salaries but I think it is worth a lot of discussion. We really do need to re-think our remuneration strategies and get rid of the horrible inequities in our society. I'd vote for you!

Tony Williams | 20 May 2020  

Wonderful article. Thank you Jill!

James OB | 20 May 2020  

This is where society should be heading to form a better world and now is the time, the turning point to create the much desired shape of a better future for humanity.

Rosita | 20 May 2020  

Well said, Jill. I don' fancy the chances of reducing pay as people get more advanced positions, but serious improvement of the pay, conditions and social standing of the "front-line" people is certainly a desirable and feasible proposal. I'd look to the union movement to play a major role in campaigning on this, with the support of writers and others.

Chris Watson | 20 May 2020  

Wonderful Jill. If only this world had more Jill Sutton’s. Congratulations

Wendy Theunissen | 20 May 2020  

So well written, so little heard and understood by the ‘top end of town’ I’m sure. I agree with you Jill. May it be so

Tricia | 20 May 2020  

As a retired school teacher myself, whose wife has now completed 40+ years in the classroom, I completely endorse your comments Jill. I have never understand why company directors and overpaid and pampered sports professionals should receive obscene levels of remuneration, while its the hard working people at the "chalkface" who actually produce the results receive a pittance. I note with interest the court case allowing long term casuals, rights to holidays and sick leave- and the howls of protest from the Neo liberal Federal Government and over paid company bosses who bemoan the estimated $9 billion cost!

Gavin O'Brien | 21 May 2020  

Unfortunately, big business sees the frontline workers as easy money and relies on the altruism, generosity of spirit and lack of business sophistication that many such workers possess to pay them little for their services and thus improve their own profits/income.

john frawley | 26 May 2020  

Thought provoking Jill - have you sent a copy to Sally McManus as she prepares to negotiate with the new Industries legislation? Some senior jobs may promote better health but sportspeople burn out early and then their bodies usually suffer from all their exertions. Musicians don't get well paid either and they spend years perfecting their skills.

Kathleen Holtzapffel | 26 May 2020  

A general wage rise can easily be legislated for all workers. Simply increase the national minimum wage by at least 5% at each national wage case for the next 5 years. Payable entirely by business. Those 2.3 million workers who earn the minimum wage will tend to be the people referred to here. Note that it would need to be linked to an extra tax table calculated to avoid any extra tax for those receiving Centrelink payments, migrants with no recourse to public funds, or whose household expenditure (including on savings) is less than $60,000 a year (the bottom 40% of households). Otherwise those on low incomes would lose perhaps a third of it to tax increases and benefits cuts. Usual practice is for National Wage Increase to be added to each wage level in each Federal award (allowances increased proportionately), so everyone not on an EBA will have their pay go up immediately. Remember, too, that today’s stripped-down awards are themselves not a fair wage, but a safety net minimum, set at that level to encourage enterprise bargaining.

R. Ambrose Raven | 27 May 2020  

Similar Articles

Seeing the con in reconciliation

  • Celeste Liddle
  • 28 May 2020

Reconciliation week itself begins on the 27th May, the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, which granted Aboriginal people the right to be counted in the census. The anniversary of the Mabo ruling in the High Court rounds out the week. Yet every year, I would swear that this week means nothing more to most people in this country than to call on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in their workplaces and community to do more work.


Insecurity in a COVID world

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 28 May 2020

But insecurity breeds insecurity. In the face of insecurity we can feel insecure. Our identity as persons can be shaken by the insecurity of our circumstances. This is not inevitable. Nor is it necessarily lasting. Some people will be temporarily or lastingly paralysed by anxiety; others will be more resilient.