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Covid-time jobs: how Russia’s working people are dealing with the pandemic

We speak to people in Saratov region about coronavirus restrictions - and how they’re making ends meet.

Gulmira Amangaliyeva
15 October 2020
Saratov shop owner talks to TV news, summer 2020
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With the spread of the Coronavirus and introduction of quarantine measures, many Russian citizens have had to get used to new working conditions and a drop in income.

An emergency medical worker, a seasonal oil rig worker, a café worker and a temporarily unemployed woman in the Saratov area talk about adapting to Russia’s new Covid-reality.

Mikhail, medic: “We’re like flies, we pick up infections and go on our way”

Mikhail, who prefers not to use his real name, is an ambulance medic with 15 years of experience. At the time of writing, he can only talk to me on the phone – he’s in isolation at home with suspected coronavirus. He says, coughing, that he felt unwell a couple of days ago, a week after going on holiday, before he tells me how his job has changed.

“In March, when coronavirus had just hit the region, we were issued with just 50 single-use personal protection suits. And how the hell could they visit patients without protection? People started getting annoyed and refusing to visit people with high temperatures – some because of aged family members, others with health issues. The nursing assistants wiped the protective gear with antiseptic (they couldn’t be washed – the material would fall apart) – people just had to put them on and go off to their next case. I don’t know how effective it was…” says Mikhail dubiously. After a while, however, protective clothing, face coverings and gloves did turn up.

There was also an unclear situation with promises of bonus payments for people working with coronavirus patients. Emergency medical services doctors had been promised 50,000 roubles, and junior and middle-layer staff and drivers 25,000 roubles (according to official figures, the average pay for a pandemic area doctor was around 52,000 roubles, with 26,000 for a paramedic).

In May, medical staff in Saratov, as indeed in the whole country, looked at their pay slips and saw just tens of roubles and kopecks in the coronavirus bracket. However, after an upsurge of anger and intervention from president Putin, who blamed the regional authorities, medical workers began to receive their full wages, even if they had only been in contact with a Covid patient for a few seconds.

According to Mikhail, the payments arrived on time in spring 2020, but come summer, they began to be delayed. Some of his colleagues who visited Coronavirus patients haven’t been able to receive their bonuses for April and May. “They make promises to us daily,” he says. “‘Don’t worry, they’ll arrive.’ The medical services were allocated millions of roubles: where have they disappeared to? One of my colleagues sent a complaint directly to the Ministry of Health and Putin, through the government’s Public Services site. It was supposed to be incognito, but the head Physician found out its author, summoned him to a meeting and had an interesting talk with him. And that was it: there was no follow-u.” .

In Saratov, ambulance units have been split into specialised and standard: three of them are working directly with pneumonia and Coronavirus and medics from the remaining six aren’t supposed to deal with patients suspected of having the virus. But it’s not always possible to distinguish between the two categories, says Mikhail.

“Last Friday I went out to visit a patient,” he says. “As we were the “clean” team, we weren’t supposed to take someone with a high temperature. The dispatcher sent us information about a young girl: ‘She has a headache but no temperature or cough.’ We arrive at the address, and her mother says: ‘She’s had a temperature for three days - the doctor called yesterday and said she had pneumonia.’ And we arrived with single-use face masks. What could we do? It was too late. And we’re like flies, we pick up infections and go on our way.”

Patients often hide their symptoms, to avoid being sent to specialised hospital departments, “Covidaria”, as they get called. People hear about cases where patients with other conditions have been infected with the virus in hospital.

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"Скорая помощь", Саратов. | Фото: Артем Светлов, Flickr. Некоторые права защищены. CC BY 2.0.

In exceptional cases, patients deliberately hide their diagnosis. “I heard of a case where the medics turned up at one patient’s home and said, ‘I called you out specially, so I could get infected, because you took a very long time to arrive’”, says Mikhail. Because of a shortage of medical teams, patients in Saratov have to wait for several hours for an ambulance.

On Monday, several days after seeing the girl with pneumonia, Mikhail felt unwell, with a temperature and a dry cough. To get an insurance payout on medical grounds, he’ll need to prove that he became infected at his workplace, and he doesn’t think he has much of a chance. Mikhail works in a “clean”, not a Covid section. He hasn’t bothered hospitalising himself, as his condition isn’t critical and he can give himself injections, but he’d like a rest in hospital, “with all the paperwork and tests”. “Yesterday, when a GP called from the health centre, they didn’t give me a test – said it was too early. Too early for what –waiting until I just get better again?” he complains.

At the time of writing this article, there have been 15,000 cases of coronavirus in the Saratov area. In July, the regional health ministry announced that there were thousands of medics with the virus (there have been no updates since).

“We have a hundred new cases daily - an official plateau. In fact, there are many more cases: Covid medical teams aren’t coping, there’s no space in hospitals. If someone is in a very serious condition, they’ll find a bed for them in a coronavirus hospital, because otherwise they’ll die”, says Mikhail.

“But the figures for medical workers with the virus are carefully edited, so the public don’t get too freaked.”

Five days after this conversation, Mikhail tells me that his situation has not improved. He’s now in hospital with confirmed coronavirus and double pneumonia.

Vladimir, a driller: “Guys have families, mortgages, loans – and they’re sitting at home and earning kopecks”

In April, Vladimir left Saratov for the Siberian town of Khanty-Mansiisk, where he had got a job as a driller’s assistant on a rig. New health regulations meant that he had to spend 14 days of quarantine in a hostel for seasonal workers. They were tested for coronavirus on their tenth day, and according to Vladimir, none of his group returned a positive result.

After the observation period, Vladimir started work. The bosses had introduced a compulsory mask poliy. “If I’m honest, these measures don’t really help,” he tells me. “They’re tried and tested on yourself. Can you imagine a driller or driller’s assistant in a face mask – it’s crazy,” he says. “Everything is as it should be, but is this going to help?”

A week later, Vladimir didn’t feel well: the tips of his fingers were white and numb, he had aches in his joints, followed later by weakness and a temperature. On the next day, he had trouble breathing and a severe cough when he inhaled. He was sent to the local hospital and diagnosed with moderately severe double pneumonia. “The doctors said that if I’d waited another day, they’d have put me on a ventilator,” says Vladimir.

On his tenth day, Vladimir was sent into quarantine – the hospital needed space for new patients. Then news began to trickle out about mass coronavirus outbreaks in drilling towns in the far north.

Some of Vladimir’s co-workers who had recovered from the virus were allowed home, and Vladimir’s doctor recommended he return to work. “I started sweating a lot – something I’d never experienced before. I had no breathing issues or a high temperature, but I had problems with sweating,” said Vladimir after he had recovered from the virus. His doctors then prescribed him breathing exercises and vitamins.

At this point, the Russian government had already published its temporary regulations for shift work, according to which employers can extend shifts for a maximum of three months. Taking Vladimir’s self-isolation and treatment, the length of time on his stint extended from one month to four.

“Morally this is very difficult. Every day is like Groundhog Day: work in difficult conditions from eight am to eight pm, every day with the same faces and décor. Back when we worked only 30 days at a time, we counted them to the second, and for a long time now as well,” says Vladimir. He returned to Saratov In August for a three-month holiday.

In Russia, three million people work, like Vladimir, outside their region, and Saratov is one of the three largest areas in the Volga federal district in terms of outflow of working-age people.

“Guys have families, mortgages, loans – and they’re sitting at home and earning kopecks. And there’s not a lot of part-time work around either”

Vladimir tells me that his colleagues are just as unhappy as those who stayed at home during the pandemic. Most employers offering work in Russia’s north, including his employer, set their pay system at a basic minimum level wage (12,130 roubles a month) plus various extras: bonuses, cold weather allowances and supplements for harmful work conditions. An average net monthly income for a driller’s assistant is 60,000-80,000 roubles. According to coronavirus regulations, their employer must pay employees who are not actually working a minimum of two-thirds of their basic wage (although not their actual salary). Colleagues of Vladimir who were temporarily out of work were being paid around 11,000-13,000 roubles a month.

“Guys have families, mortgages, loans – and they’re sitting at home and earning kopecks. And there’s not a lot of part-time work around either,” he says. “If you want to leave, you’re very welcome. ‘We’re not holding anyone back,’ they say at work. Oil production has dropped this year as well, so there’s less work, and nowhere in particular to look for it.”

Yevgeniya, a café manager: “Fewer customers, more oxygen”

In mid-March, a full self-isolation regime was introduced in Saratov, and then president Putin announced that the whole of April was a non-working month. Cafes, beauty salons, fitness clubs and cinemas all closed down. The restrictions were then gradually lifted over the summer, and now the region is stuck in Stage 2 (out of three) of restrictions being lifted. Business owners, who have to pay their staff non-working days as well as the rental on their premises, are continuing to make losses.

Yevgeniya, who manages a kebab café in the town of Balakovo, has seen few downsides of the restrictions. She quickly sorted out her deliveries during the quarantine period, and during the spring months, the demand for kebabs, salads and cold snacks was consistently high. She was able to process up to 30 orders a day, working two shifts from 10am to midnight.

“People still had money to buy kebabs, and it didn’t seem to bother them that they couldn’t go out into the countryside in groups or that many families had lost income. There was an impression that the quarantine didn’t affect our city,” says Yevgeniya, adding that it was easier to run a delivery service. “There would be no one inside the café to irritate people, and the fewer customers, the more oxygen.”

The café’s team is small, only six people. The owner hasn’t had to sack anyone or send anyone on holiday. The only downside was that they had to postpone the opening of a second establishment. This had been planned to open back in April, but delays with the installation of equipment meant they had to wait until mid-summer.

By July, summer cafes were opening throughout the area. Café owners had to adjust to customers’ demands – some put out tables and sofas along narrow pavements and parking areas.

Despite all this, says Yevgeniya, not all her old acquaintances in the catering sector returned to work. “My friend worked in a hotel restaurant. They closed the hotel, and for some reason they didn’t want to go into the catering delivery business. If we had been allowed to open a summer café… but they are still sitting at home. The owner probably decided to insure himself – the establishment belongs to a large industrial firm, and they worked in the official sector, paying all their taxes and so on,” she tells me.

Whereas during the months of lockdown, her friend earns just around 12,000 roubles a month – a minimal sum. According to the Saratov regional restaurateurs’ guild, 20-30% of catering establishments were lost to the pandemic. Business owners, deprived of their profits, couldn’t pay their staff, and they also had to pay their landlords for empty spaces, while cheap loans they had taken out couldn’t be of use to set up a business in restriction conditions.

Aliya, unemployed single parent: “It’s a good thing that we have elections this year”

Last summer, Aliya, a 29-year-old single mother, left the children’s nursery where she worked as a nanny, and took a job in a cheap clothing shop. The hours were convenient, it was close to her home and the salary was 25,000 roubles a month. The fact that the owner suggested paying her in cash didn’t bother her at the time: “If you don’t work in the state sector or a large company, your salary is unlikely to be official - you’ll either get it semi-officially or under the table. Few of the local organisations can allow themselves to pay every tax and fee.”

When the shop closed during quarantine, Aliya was let go “until better times”. “There was total confusion. Where could I go if everywhere was shut and there was no work anywhere?” she remembers.

Aliya’s monthly mortgage repayment is 9,000 roubles, and another 2,000 goes on utilities. Presidential child benefits helped to pay her mortgage repayments and somehow survive: her six-year-old daughter was given a one-off payment of 10,000 roubles and around 5,000 roubles each month. They even rescued Aliya’s aged parents, who live in their own home on a minimal pension.

In the middle of April, the government gave the young woman some pleasant news: from 1 March anyone who had lost their job during the coronavirus was entitled to a higher monthly benefit rate – 12,130 roubles. Aliya got her papers together and submitted a statement online. A week later, someone from the State Employment Centre phoned to confirm that she was officially unemployed and therefore entitled to a monthly benefit of 1,500 roubles.

“I started to stutter from shock when I heard: sorry, how much?” Aliya tells me. The woman explained that the maximum benefit was available only to working people who had lost their work after 1 March. For all others who had lost official employment earlier, they calculate the number of weeks over the last 365 days before they become unemployed. If they have over 26 weeks, they receive 75% of their previous salary (up to 12,000 roubles a month). Aliya, however, had only 24 official previous weeks, including her time at the children’s nursery, hence why she was awarded minimum benefit.

In June, the labour exchange gave Aliya yet another gift: the minimum three-month employment benefit was rising from 1,500 to 4,500 roubles, plus 3,000 roubles for each child. “We’re in luck that there is an election this year,” says the unemployed single mother as she links her benefits with the July 2020 vote on constitutional amendments.

During the coronavirus pandemic, around 60,000 people applied to the regional labour exchange – only around 10,000 unemployed people were registered before it, and in all this time Aliya wasn’t offered a single job. In October, when monthly unemployment benefit falls to 1,500 roubles again, Aliya plans to find herself a job independently, looking first at sales opportunities, where she has had some experience. “I’ll try to get an official job first, or at least a ‘grey’ one,” she tells me.

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