Workers on precarious contracts are more likely to take on extra shifts in hopes of staying on their managers’ good books. Depressed wages in the ambulance service are also playing their part, prompting contractors to take on more than the minimum 14 monthly shifts they would be expected to work if they were on open-ended contracts. Before the pandemic, a paramedic contractor working 14 12-hour shifts a month brought in around PLN 2,500, or 550 euros – the equivalent of a starting salary, and barely enough to cover the cost of rent and utility bills. a small apartment in a Suburb of Warsaw.
During the peaks of the pandemic, the ambulance service offered paramedics double the usual rate of pay – but the short-term bonus did not appease workers. The department’s final offer of a 12 per cent wage increase in response to the strike was rejected by many workers not affiliated with the national union. Union leader Piotr Dymon acknowledged there was discontent over the pay deal, but stressed that any gains tended to be won incrementally.
“No overnight solutions”
Employees of Poland’s social insurance institution, ZUS, the body responsible for disbursing pensions and benefits, have also served on the front lines of the state’s response to the pandemic, although more discreetly than paramedics. . At the start of the pandemic, the institution was abruptly tasked with disbursing emergency state bailout grants to struggling businesses.
Like paramedics, ZUS staff would end up working overtime. But unlike most paramedics, they had indefinite contracts, limiting the number of overtime hours they were officially allowed to work. Where paramedics might be tempted to work extra shifts by the prospect of higher earnings, the ZUS employee could only be paid for overtime hours that were within the official limit. However, under pressure from superiors, many ended up overstepping this limit, effectively working without pay. In a telephone interview with BIRN after a 12-hour shift last November, Jolanta, a ZUS employee in the city of Koszalin who requested that her real name be withheld, described how her manager asked her regularly to work “unsaved” by logging out. of the application that measured the hours spent in the office.
Like hundreds of her colleagues, Magdalena, the ZUS clerk in Krakow, changed roles at the start of the pandemic. In June 2020, she had already exceeded the annual maximum authorized overtime hours. She said the prospect of extra income from overtime was not much of an incentive because wages were so low anyway. “We only work overtime because of pressure from management,” she told BIRN. After 12 years of work, Magdalena’s net monthly income of 2,500 PLN, or 550 euros, barely exceeded the minimum wage – similar to the paramedic working a standard number of shifts.
In August 2021, the eight unions representing ZUS workers demanded a pay rise. In September, the government proposed to increase the monthly income of all ZUS employees by an additional 300 PLN, or 60 euros. As with paramedics, the wage offer would prove divisive, pitting an established union against disillusioned workers. “It’s nothing when we earn so little,” said Ilona Garczynska, a ZUS worker in the city of Wroclaw who co-founded Zwiazkowa Alternatywa, ZA, a union that promised to take a more confrontational approach. “We asked for a 60% raise.”