Corporate America: This Is Your Time to Lead

Published mar. 18, 2020

This article was published as part of JFF’s Corporate Action Platform, a place for companies to learn and share best practices for doing right by their workers as well as their company.

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We are at an unprecedented moment in American history.

A deep recession is looming amidst massive nationwide shutdowns aimed at containing a virus that threatens the lives of millions. At the heart of the COVID-19 crisis are America’s 24 million frontline workers, many of whom work in the restaurant, retail, and gig industries and live paycheck to paycheck even in the best of times. Their livelihoods are quickly being reduced or eliminated entirely. We can’t overstate the seriousness of this moment for these workers—what is happening will impact their ability to feed their families and contribute any purchasing power back into the economy. Our businesses and communities will, sooner or later, share in their devastation.

There’s a lot of talk about how elected leaders and individual citizens should be responding to this crisis. But there’s another set of actors—the leaders of our nation's biggest companies—who play a critically important role during times of crisis. What can you, as a corporate leader, do to make a difference?

We think about this question a lot. How can the leaders of America’s largest companies drive positive impact for workers and communities? Especially when both are considered vulnerable? In times like these, there is a real opportunity for you to step out and up as leaders, using your power and influence to create stability and mitigate any further downfall.

What does that look like? Here are three big ways you and your company can make a difference today.

1. Support workers with paid time off, including sick time.

A strong total rewards package—compensation and benefits that support employee stability and mobility—is always important. But it is particularly critical at times of crisis when workers need to deal with a sick child or parent, or seek medical care themselves, but can’t afford to miss work (and the paycheck). It’s the right thing to do because it keeps workers and communities healthy and supported—but it also happens to be good for business. Research shows that workers who receive benefits like paid sick leave stay with their employers longer, saving companies money by reducing turnover—and they are often more productive. This past week, some of the largest Fortune 500 companies, including Trader Joe’s, Walmart, and Darden Restaurants, have come out with new or updated paid time off policies that include additional temporary paid sick time for workers who contract COVID-19 or, as in Darden’s case, grant new permanent paid sick time that will continue to be available in the future.

2. Consider your whole workforce, from employees to contract workers, as equal assets to your business.

Crises affect all workers in a company, no matter how they’re classified. While contract (1099) workers often don’t qualify for a company’s paid time off policies, they are still deeply impacted by any shift they miss, whether that’s due to sickness or a mandatory office closure. Other than taking steps to reclassify these workers, there are meaningful ways companies can support them during crisis times—for example, they could provide direct financial support to those who are unable to log hours.

So who’s leading here? Technology giants like Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Google, and Facebook are stepping up in this way—agreeing to pay their contract service workers (people who help drive their shuttles, staff their cafeterias, clean their offices, etc.) even though they’re unable to work their shifts due to office closures necessitated by COVID-19.

The gig industry isn’t far behind. Lyft and Uber are providing their drivers (all 1099 contract workers) with financial support that will cover the costs of their medical care and/or ensure they don’t need to drive when they’re sick but need to make money. Postmates, a company that is often thinking about how it can better support the workers who power its platform, announced an emergency “fleet relief fund” that covers any type of medical care for their drivers during this COVID-19 crisis.

These types of supports for contract workers are largely unprecedented, but they represent real leadership on the part of these companies.

3. Recognize the benefits—and limits—of flexible working arrangements.

A huge number of companies have instituted voluntary or mandatory work-from-home policies in response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Flexible work arrangements are an important perk to offer employees, but they often don’t go far enough, and they may not extend to all of your workers, many of whom may be unable to do their jobs from home. Alternatives to remote work could be flexible, employee-driven scheduling arrangements, or generous parental leave policies that help employees whose children are home from school due to illness or school closure. These types of policies benefit businesses the way paid time off does: They improve employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention in the long term. They are a worthwhile investment for any company to make.

These actions represent clear steps companies can take to lead in moments of crisis—like the one we’re experiencing today, and during unknown crises we will inevitably experience in the future. They are a road map to help you—when the pressure is on—put long-term stakeholder impact at the forefront.

At JFF’s Impact Employer Summit earlier this year, Fortune CEO Alan Murray issued a call to the corporate leaders in attendance: “Recognize your power—and your ability to change a company that can change the world.”

Today, we return to that call, at a time when what you do and don’t do matters so much. This is your moment to lead, to prove that the actions you take matter and can have a meaningful, positive impact on workers, communities, and your long-term bottom line.

Don’t let us down.

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On March 26, 2020, JFF’s Corporate Action Platform gathered leaders virtually to weigh in on how their companies are leading in this moment. Here are some of the highlights: