Stressed contact tracers are fighting for better working conditions as they face growing abuse from an increasingly weary public.

Responsible for tracking down thousands of "close contacts" of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the contact tracers are blaming poor management along with lack of job security for plunging morale and rising absenteeism.

So unhappy are the contact tracers at their working conditions that they have enlisted the Public Service Association (PSA) to help fight for improvements, including shifting from short-term labour hire contract to permanent employees.

Many people in the travel industry took on jobs as contact tracers during the pandemic. Picture: iStock
Many people in the travel industry took on jobs as contact tracers during the pandemic. Picture: iStock

A former contact tracer who spoke to News Corp on the condition of anonymity said he - along with hundreds of others - took on the job after losing his role at Qantas.

Despite bringing superior customer service skills to the role, NSW Health bureaucrats charged with managing the contact tracing teams made staff feel like they were part of an overseas call centre, he said.

Staff felt like they were constantly being watched while those wanting to speak out remained silent in fear of being "escorted out".

A recent NSW Health memo sent to contact tracers - and obtained by News Corp - made it clear their work was being monitored.

Entitled "Heads up - Busy days, please focus", the memo informed tracers of a new system in place which allowed for the work being done to be "more closely monitored".

The poor management compounded the stress of the job, which entailed calling "thousands of people" every day while organising food drops for pensioners isolating alone, to sorting alternative accommodation for others.



"There are people that don't like to tell you the truth, or they give you a variation of a story - that's when you rely on your gut instinct. Some people don't believe you're a contact tracer," he said.

"You get a lot of anger, being sworn at. We are calling people to cancel Christmas. You have the F word thrown at you a lot. Flight crews are trained to deal with a range of situations from potential assaults to customers cranky that the chicken has run out.

"We like what we do. The issue is the lack of respect from management. The management is definitely not gold standard."

Union assistant secretary Troy Wright said it was time for the state government to make tracers permanent employees.

"NSW's gold standard contact tracing system is at risk because the government refuses to offer any job security."

In a letter to the union, NSW Ministry of Health industrial relations and management director Elizabeth Allen said it was the department's "preference" that the contact tracers remained engaged as "contingent workers" given their roles were largely following "set scripts" and involved in "case follow up".

A NSW Health spokesperson said the evolving nature of COVID-19 meant it was important contact tracing teams had the flexibility to be able to be quickly scaled up or down.

"NSW Health will continue to review its staffing requirements and engagements as part of the ongoing COVID-19 response and address any issues or concerns that an individual may have, irrespective of their employment status," the spokesperson said.




Originally published as Stressed contact tracers fight for better conditions