Over the past year, thousands of Berliners have found work in the lucrative testing and vaccination industries that grew out of the pandemic. But how attractive are these jobs, and how hard are they to get? And what will happen after the crisis is over?
An eclectic mix of DJs, bouncers and bar staff mill around on the floor of the Arena Berlin in Alt-Treptow. They check visitors’ documents and take their coats, and push less able-bodied guests around the 30,000sqm vaccination mega-centre on wheelchairs. It’s a far cry from the dance floors they once orbited, but most are grateful to have found work – and a decent wage – in this new sector, born of the crisis that killed their jobs in the first place.
These workers have Jens Quade to thank for throwing them a lifeline. When the 53-year-old Urberliner found himself in charge of recruitment for two of Berlin’s six Covid-19 vaccination centres, being president of the German Red Cross’s Müggelspree branch, he turned to one of the industries that was hurting most. “In December, I had the challenge of having to hire lots of people in a very short space of time, so I made a conscious decision to target the arts, culture and club scene, to specifically recruit people from that area,” he says during one of his cigarette breaks. “I turned to the state culture minister [Klaus Lederer] and got the addresses of industry associations from this field, and just started calling them all up.”
There was a flyer campaign; job ads were shared on Facebook and on industry mailing lists. Now, Quade estimates, around 800 of the one thousand employees at the Arena and Tegel Impfzentren are from those creative industries. The vast majority of the centres’ staff require no medical experience, just the willingness to wear a mask all day and work with the public. The “worker bees”, as Quade calls them, get a monthly wage of €2500-2800 for full-time work on fixed-term contracts, which are extended depending on how the vaccination drive is progressing.
Berlin’s six vaccination centres, which employ 2100 people between them, are just one part of the new job market that has arisen from the pandemic. Thousands more have found work in the now-ubiquitous field of coronavirus testing, with around 740 facilities – and counting – now listed on the state health department’s website. This industry has boomed following the introduction in March this year of free rapid testing for all, with subsidies available for savvy businesses looking to profit.
Berlin’s six vaccination centres, which employ 2100 people, are just one part of the new job market that has arisen from the pandemic
Today, there are test facilities all across town, from repurposed sport stadiums to restaurants whose menu boards have been wiped clean to make way for Abstand rules and QR-code registration. The operators require no prior experience or medical training to register. By simply filling out an online form, any business can request to be added to the ministry’s list of test spots; if it gets the go-ahead, staff just need to complete a short training course before they can begin poking cotton swabs up strangers’ noses.
Even with these new opportunities, looking for a job mid-pandemic is rough: there are about a third fewer vacancies listed on job centre websites in Berlin than there were a year ago. The rate of unemployment in the city has climbed from 7.9 percent in March 2020 – before the pandemic prompted struggling employers to start firing people – to 10.5 percent this April. Of course, being out of work doesn’t necessarily mean being out of a job entirely: ask anyone in the Berlin club scene, where almost everybody is currently on Kurzarbeit, the state-funded furlough scheme covering their wages so their broke employers don’t have to.
Inside the Arena
Janosch Marder and Christian Kahl, two of the DJs now working as vaccination helpers, both lost their bookings basically overnight when the pandemic hit last year. After submitting a CV to Quade’s Red Cross branch and taking part in a brief telephone interview, they were each hired to start at the Arena centre in January. “There was a seminar to give you an introduction and then it’s a case of learning by doing,” says 38-year-old Marder, once a regular fixture in some of Berlin’s most popular clubs (Sisyphos, Mensch Meier, Kater Blau) under the artist name Janoma. “Of course you have to do everything correctly, not make mistakes, but it’s nothing particularly complicated.”
Roughly speaking, the work can be divided into three areas: registration, not unlike check-in at an airport; guiding visitors through the system; and supporting people who are less able-bodied.
“You work your eight hours and get a one-hour lunch break in the middle,” says Kahl, who is one part of downtempo duo Kahl & Kæmena and also used to arrange bookings for festival stages including the FKK floor at Fusion. He says he likes the vaccination centre work, before correcting himself.
“I appreciate the work,” he clarifies, “because the team is so nice. If the chemistry wasn’t right, I don’t think I’d stick with the job for as long, because at the end of the day it’s pretty much like being in a hamster wheel.” He found out about the gig through Booking United, an initiative of over 150 Berlin agencies that was launched to support musicians and artists through the pandemic. Now, rather than getting his social interactions on the dancefloor, at the bar or in the queues for the club toilet, Kahl finds himself making small talk at different stops throughout the Arena’s labyrinth of registration points, marked walkways and vaccination booths.
“You have lots of these short conversations – with an elderly gent or an older lady, then someone else around the corner – which all tend to be pretty positive,” he says. “So I guess that’s similar to the club feeling, because you have those feel-good vibes at least.”
The Red Cross is still hiring: as vaccination capacity increases, Quade says he needs more people, plus replacements for the 30 to 40 members of staff each month who find other gigs and leave. Some might consider the chance of scoring a quick jab a good enough reason to apply, since such a job catapults you into the top priority group for vaccination. But Quade bristles at the suggestion that this is a perk, pointing to the infection risk that his staff expose themselves to – and adding that not all of them get vaccinated immediately, since they have to wait for leftover doses in the evenings. Kahl lucked out and got his first shot during his first week on the job, while Marder had to wait two months.
While members of Berlin’s club scene were welcomed with open arms, not everyone has been able to walk into a job at a Berlin vaccination centre. Maria, 27, sent numerous applications for Impfzentrum positions in late December and early January as a furloughed flight attendant looking to top up her Kurzarbeit money. “I never heard back from them,” she says. “So I thought, well, might as well try a test centre.” That turned out to be “way easier”.
She found a test facility provider website with a link to listed jobs, and sent them a two-line email briefly introducing herself. “And that was it. They invited me to an interview and afterwards I worked a trial shift, which was paid. Then I got the job.”
Maria, who did not want to give her full name, worked the registration booth on a Minijob contract for €12 an hour – but she didn’t last long there. “I ended up at a completely disorganised company where the shift planning was a disaster,” she says, without wanting to give the name of the company. “We had no rota for the week, so you would find out on the Monday whether you had to work on the Tuesday.” She quit within six weeks of starting.
Maria suspects that the vaccination gig would have been less stressful. “Those centres are led by proper organisations, like the German Red Cross – but anyone can open a test site.” The Covid job market is a two-tier economy: on the one hand, there are publicly funded vaccine jobs offered by established charities with well-structured HR departments; and on the other, there are private-sector gigs in testing, where the working conditions are as variable as the companies involved.
Some test centres have cropped up in locations like clubs, theatres and restaurants, as shuttered spaces try to adapt to the crisis – either to play their part, to keep their workers in a job or to cash in on state subsidies. Entrepreneurs and adaptable businesses can choose between over 450 different tests currently listed by the government’s BfArM institute for drugs to use at their improvised centre. The state pays non-medical sites €12 per test carried out, plus an additional €6 if they supply the materials themselves – allowing for a handsome profit, since some of the tests can cost as little as €2 a piece.
Benjamin Föckersperger entered the testing game as an entrepreneur. After launching a number of different ventures in fields varying from plastic recycling to esports, he founded coronatest.de back in November 2020. It now runs 12 sites across the city and employs around 130 to 150 people. The company is currently advertising around a dozen job vacancies, ranging from management and medical positions to more entry-level work, like staffing the registration points and pointing people in the right direction towards their test.
The starting rate for hourly pay is around €13, Föckersperger says. “For a lot of people who’ve lost a job with their regular employer or are on Kurzarbeit, it’s obviously pretty cool. We’ve been able to get them earning again and putting food on the table.”
One of those people was Bruno Epifânio, who lost his job as manager of Café Nullpunkt, a slick vegan eatery in Kreuzberg’s Blumengroßmarkt, after the pandemic hit last year. “It was pretty easy to get the job here,” he says as he clocks off from his shift at coronatest.de’s open-air site at the RAW Gelände in Friedrichshain. He trained for half a day at coronatest.de’s Friedrichstraße location before getting the gig near Warschauer Straße when it opened in mid-February. “It’s fun and I’m outside. I have my schedule so it gets me out of the house,” Epifânio says. He works daily six-hour shifts, from 7:30 to 14:30, and has climbed the ladder to become shift manager for his team, bringing in more cash from the testing gig – although he refuses to disclose how much.
“No one is working in a test facility for fun or because it’s the best job in the world. It’s because it’s this or nothing.”
Föckersperger is keen to distance his business from the less regulated side of corona testing. “Now every Currywurst joint and chicken grill has opened up its dining room for testing with the same workers, because they can’t offer the space to diners anyway,” the businessman says, before adding ominously: “The quality is what you would expect.”
According to Föckersperger, his facilities are a cut above the rest. Firstly, he argues, because his cotton swab-wielding employees get more thorough training: a five-hour induction followed by a trainee period, as opposed to the bare minimum required by the city health authority, which is a one-hour course provided by the Red Cross. Aside from that, Föckersperger claims that there are vast differences in terms of labour standards: “No one in these Dönerläden has ever even heard of occupational safety!”
Temping the pandemic
Looking ahead, no member of the new Covid labour market is expecting – or hoping – to have a job for life in the pandemic-response industry. Even those well-paid vaccination centre workers are itching for Berlin’s clubs and bars to reopen. In the meantime, they can at least stay socially connected with the scene. “There’s not a whole lot of networking because I think everyone is still quite reserved about what the future holds,”Kahl says. “But sure, I’ve met some pretty interesting people with whom I’d like to collaborate later.” He and his colleagues only recently found out that they will still have vaccination centre jobs this summer. Their contracts were due to expire at the end of this month but have since been extended until late September.
As for the testing jobs, many of those will only last as long as the state funding for Schnelltests does. Föckersperger hopes to stay in the business for longer by offering PCR tests, which are expected to stick around longer as a standard requirement for cross-border travel. But he understands his workforce of Covid jobbers are waiting for a way out. “Most of our employees are looking forward to being able to do their old job again,” he says. “No one is working in a test facility for fun or because it’s the best job in the world. It’s because it’s this or nothing.”