For me one of the more interesting aspects of COVID19 on ADF partner employment has been re-defining the essential worker, and what tension this may have caused within ADF families.
COVID19 has made us re-evaluate how we view care work and shown us how important occupations such as nurses, teachers, early childhood educators, aged care workers, supermarket workers and others are to the economy and to our society. These professions are also highly feminized and notoriously underpaid and undervalued, yet they have been the pandemic heroes, the frontline workers. The 2019 ADF Families Survey reported that 24% of employed civilian partners are health or education professionals (nurses, dentists, therapists, medical teachers, lecturers and private tutors). A further 12% are Community and Personal Service Workers with the majority of those (5%) being carers and aides.
At the same time as healthcare became the pandemic frontline the ADF was called upon to support the government’s pandemic response. According to the Defence website Defence’s assistance to Australia’s pandemic response has been extensive with reconnaissance, contact tracing, medical assistance, quarantine assistance, border control and the production of essential equipment. And of course many of the regular demands on the ADF workforce did not stop for Covid. Much of this work involved members being absent from home. Given the number of healthcare and education workers in the ADF partner population this may have caused some tension within ADF households as both members and partners negotiated their availability to meet their professional and family obligations. Traditionally the ADF has an expectation that the ADF member’s career and work obligations comes first. But in the case of this pandemic this could be a more difficult case to argue. It was a point that the Chief of Defence Force acknowledged in his letter to families in May of this year. Whilst the letter focused on the essential nature of ADF work and the traditional thank you for your sacrifice message to families it did acknowledge the impact of Covid for those employed in essential services and CDF asked his “command team to support, wherever possible, our family members who are in health and support roles in protecting our community”.
Whilst this support for essential roles is crucial during a pandemic these health, education, and retail occupations have always been important, even if they have not been recognised. What will it mean for the ADF longer term now that we recognise that ADF partner also have essential roles in society? Will there be greater recognition, respect and higher status placed on the occupations of ADF partners? Will the ADF adjust its policies and procedures to account for the dual roles ADF couples perform in society and support ADF partners in aspiring to and fulfilling these essential roles by incorporating great flexibility into the ADF workforce? Will they need to do this in order to continue to recruit and retain the workforce they need including ADF members who expect their partner’s career to be recognised, valued and not negatively impacted by their own?