As Australia continues to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, one of the methods Australian states and territories have used is restrictions on who can move through an area and how far they can go. However, to keep societies functioning there are key workers who need to be at their workplaces, regardless of where they commute from. This has led to question as to just who is a key worker and how far do they commute through Australia’s large capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne.

Defining who is a key worker

Recent AHURI research defines key workers as ‘employees in services that are essential to a city’s functioning but who earn low to moderate incomes,’ and that the work roles require people being physically present at a work site rather than being able to work from home. Living close by to one’s work is particularly important in healthcare, emergency services and some community and welfare support roles in order for workers to cover shifts, quickly respond to increases in service demand and attend emergency situations.

The research considered 21 occupation groups as key workers:

  • Teachers (all types from early childhood to secondary school and special education)
  • Registered Nurses
  • Midwives
  • Social Workers
  • ICT Support Professionals
  • ICT Support and Telecommunications Technicians and Trades
  • Ambulance Officers and Paramedics
  • Enrolled and Mothercraft Nurses
  • Welfare Support Workers
  • Child Carers
  • Educational Aides
  • Aged and Disability Carers
  • Nursing Support and Personal Care Workers
  • Fire and Emergency Service Workers
  • Police
  • Prison Officers
  • Bus and Coach Drivers
  • Train and Tram Drivers
  • Delivery Drivers
  • Commercial Cleaners
  • Laundry Workers.

In the context of COVID-19, there is also growing evidence that occupations in delivery services and retail food services are important to the functioning and resilience of cities in times of crisis.

How far do key workers commute?

During COVID outbreaks, without appropriate and careful social distancing rules, there is great potential for the virus to spread outside of city and regional boundaries (including to nearby satellite cities such as Wollongong and Geelong) when large numbers of people have to commute long distances. AHURI research reveals that key workers are more likely than the general labour force to reside in outer suburbs and satellite cities and to commute more than 30kms to work. In Sydney, just under 44,000 key workers commute over 30kms to work, and just under 16,000 commute 50kms or more, while in Melbourne, just under 38,000 key workers commute 30kms or more and over 10,000 commute 50kms or more.

Where are key worker jobs?

While key worker jobs are distributed across Sydney and Melbourne, over a third are located in inner subregions (over 118,000 jobs in Sydney (35%) and 105,000 jobs (36%) in Melbourne). Jobs in ICT support and telecommunications, laundry and commercial cleaning, tram and train operations, policing, fire and emergency services, and nursing and midwifery are more heavily concentrated in these inner subregions. However, only a small proportion of key workers in inner subregions than actually live in that same area (21% in Sydney and 30% in Melbourne) showing that the majority commute in from other parts of the city.

This suggests that the inner suburbs lack suitable, desirable and/or affordable housing. Indeed, there is a high concentration of key workers in outer local government areas (LGAs) and satellite cities and a very low relative concentration in inner and some middle ring LGAs, although this is more pronounced in Sydney than in Melbourne.

Table: LGAs with high proportion of key workers relative to distribution of labour force (2016) (where ratio greater than 1 shows greater concentration of key workers)

Greater Sydney Greater Melbourne
Blue Mountains 1.47 Geelong 1.30
Kiama 1.34 Golden Plains 1.23
Shellharbour 1.34 Maroondah 1.18
Lake Macquarie 1.29 Surf Coast 1.17
Central Coast 1.29 Whittlesea 1.16
Wollongong 1.27 Frankston 1.15
Newcastle 1.25 Banyule 1.14
Maitland 1.22 Yarra Ranges 1.13
Campbelltown 1.18 Mornington Peninsula 1.11
Port Stephens 1.17 Nillumbik 1.11
Camden 1.17 Cardinia 1.10
Blacktown 1.16 Casey and Hume 1.09

The challenge of affordable housing for key workers

One of the key reasons for the long commute patterns of many key workers is that there is a severe lack of affordable housing, either for rent or to buy, that is close to the city centres. Indeed, 20 per cent of key workers across Sydney and 17 per cent across Melbourne experience housing stress, with much higher rates in inner subregions.

There are no inner and few middle ring areas with rents for a two-bedroom property that is affordable to a key worker earning in the low moderate-income range (i.e. around $78,000 p.a.), this group of key workers would include early career nurses, midwives and tram and train operators. For such key workers who want to buy a unit LGAs with an affordable median unit price are limited to a few outer suburbs and satellite cities and regions, and, for house buyers, only one LGA in the greater Melbourne region (the Golden Plains LGA) and two in the greater Sydney region (Cessnock and Maitland LGAs) have a median house price that is affordable. In Sydney both these LGAs are located approximately 150km from the city centre.

Policy solutions to support key worker housing

The nature of key worker jobs makes their housing needs an important public policy consideration, even after vaccines might greatly reduce the impacts of COVID in the future. Economic modelling suggests that increasing the volume of subsidised and affordable housing close to areas of job density in Sydney would have significant productivity effects to the metropolitan economy. These productivity gains predominantly stem from reduced travel times and better matching of the labour force to jobs that align with their skills.

Policy strategies to help key workers live closer to work centres could include:

  • using public sector land to deliver affordable housing for key workers
  • allowing employers to develop homes for key workers (for example, by allowing housing in non-residential zones, but only for the purpose of affordable key worker housing)
  • initiating inclusionary zoning requirements to deliver affordable housing for key workers in health and education precincts
  • supporting models that can secure affordability over the long term, such as community land trusts
  • supporting/encouraging more superfunds to invest in housing for key workers
  • developing a government shared ownership program for properties delivered through some of the above mechanisms.
  • government support for the development of a purpose built and professionally managed rental housing sector. The value of such a housing sector would be maximised if landlords were required to lease a proportion of units to key workers.

This AHURI Brief is based on the recently published Final Report – Housing key workers: scoping challenges, aspirations and policy responses for Australian cities