A civil servant’s story: ‘I’ll have to cut back on my food bill’

Dublin-based clerical officer Cathleen Shiels earns €2 an hour less than the living wage

Cathleen Shiels: “People think civil servants are all earning this big money, on these great pensions. That is not true for the vast majority of us.” Photograph: Trevor McBride

Cathleen Shiels: “People think civil servants are all earning this big money, on these great pensions. That is not true for the vast majority of us.” Photograph: Trevor McBride

 

“It is very tough to keep chipper and to not let it grind you down.”

So says Cathleen Shiels, a clerical officer working for the Department of Education, whose take-home pay works out at about €370 a week, which works out at €9.86 an hour – 31 cent more than the statutory minimum wage, and over €2 less than the living wage.

Aged 32, the NUI Maynooth arts graduate says she couldn’t survive only that her rent is relatively cheap for Dublin – €450 a month for a house share in East Wall.

But her four-year lease is coming to an end, and she fears a rent hike of up to €300.

“I’m very anxious thinking about what that might mean. I’ll have to cut back further on my food bill. I’ll have to think about sharing a room. As a woman in her 30s, it is horrible, but I don’t really know what I will do.”

I work in the city centre, but I don’t go out for lunch, like other women my age. I go to Aldi on a Sunday and buy in things for my lunch

Already, Shiels forgoes most workday treats one might expect a civil servant working in the capital could easily afford.

“I couldn’t tell you the last time I went to the cinema. Between the ticket and popcorn, it’s €25, and that is just too much,” she says.

“Things you might take for granted, like going out on pay day – I can’t do that.

“I work in the city centre, but I don’t go out for lunch, like other women my age. I go to Aldi on a Sunday and buy in things for my lunch.”

Housebound

Some weeks are tougher than others. When the rent and bills are due at the same time, Shiels is virtually housebound outside of work hours, she says, as she can’t afford to do anything.

When I get a pension, it will really be a State pension with a small top-up

She left short-term contracts in US tech multinationals for “stability and security” in the civil service.

“People think civil servants are all earning this big money, on these great pensions. But that is not true for the vast majority of us. For every secretary general there are hundreds on lower ranks, earning considerably less. When I get a pension, it will really be a State pension with a small top-up.”

For now, she’s living on the hope of a future promotion “so I don’t have to worry about paying my rent”.

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