The response to the coronavirus crisis has underlined the critical role of the UK’s key workers, many of whom are in relatively low-paid sectors. This has prompted calls in outlets as diverse as the Guardian and the Financial Times to reassess the working conditions of key workers, both during and after the pandemic. On Sunday, the Liberal Democrats called for front-line health staff to receive the same £29-a-day ‘active duty’ bonus as the armed forces. New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a ‘reckoning’ for key workers once the crisis has passed, saying that key workers have ‘often been overlooked [and] underpaid and there has got to be a change’.

The importance of key workers during the crisis cannot be overstated. However, there are substantial differences amongst key workers in different sectors and any post-pandemic policy responses will need to recognise this.

In this briefing note, we analyse how key workers in different sectors differ in terms of their demographics (such as age, education and where they were born) and their working conditions. If policymakers are keen to evaluate the conditions of key workers once the pandemic has passed, it will be critical to take these differences into account.

Key findings

  • Key workers as a whole are a cross-section of the UK workforce: in terms of their age, their education and where they were born, key workers look similar to the rest of the workforce. However, they are more likely to be female and are somewhat lower-paid than other employees: the median key worker earned £12.26 per hour in today’s prices last year, 8% less than the £13.26 per hour earned by the median earner in a non-key occupation.
  • But there are big differences between key workers in different sectors. The food and social care sectors stand out for the low wages their employees earn and the low levels of qualifications their workers hold. Older, self-employed farmers mean that nearly a sixth of food sector workers are aged 65 or over. Younger, migrant food processors mean that 30% of workers in the sector were born somewhere other than the UK, as were a quarter of health and social care workers.
  • These differences translate into significant variation in key worker wages: the median earner in the food sector earned £8.59 per hour last year, 30% less than the median key worker. But the median earner in key professional services – such as justice or journalism – earned more than half as much again as the average key worker, partly reflecting that nearly 80% have degrees.
  • The gap between key and non-key employees has been growing over time. After taking into account differences in the characteristics of key and non-key employees, average wages for key workers last year were around 9% lower than for a similar non-key employee. After nearly a decade of wage restraint in sectors such as education and public order, that is nearly twice as large as the 5% gap in 2010.