Politics of Poverty

What’s the role of business in the COVID-19 crisis?

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Former United States Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta addresses the Business Roundtable in 2017. Credit: Flickr

Business has an important role to play in addressing the health and economic impacts of this crisis. Here’s a checklist of what companies can, and should, do.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for governments to take their duties seriously in protecting people and their human rights. Society’s ills can never be solved by business and markets alone. For several decades, the US government has taken a back seat as it relied on the private sector to solve public challenges—a system that is now being shaken to the core as benefits tied to employment are lost with jobs, and business is forced to shut down.

Nevertheless, business has an important role to play in addressing the health and economic impacts of this crisis. Businesses of all sizes must act responsibly to do no harm, care for employees, and allow government to do its job in protecting people.

Just six months ago, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from 181 leading US companies, said it was re-defining the purpose of the corporation for the benefit of not just shareholders, but also communities, employees, suppliers, and customers. The COVID-19 crisis will reveal which companies are just paying lip service to the statement and which ones will put people above profits.

No doubt about it, these are unprecedented times for business. Amidst this uncertainty, leaders are distinguishing themselves from laggards. Some companies are adopting paid sick leave policies while others are refusing to adopt the same and actively lobbying against the policy.

Some companies are making the sacrifice government has asked of them by closing their stores but still paying their employees (Patagonia), while other companies are keeping stores open, playing down the risk of the virus and prioritizing revenue over health concerns.

Some CEOs are giving up 100% of their salary while other companies are announcing CEO pay raises.

While small businesses often have fewer options and greater constraints, many are still stepping up, including by providing flexibility for their workforce to choose between reduced hours or applying for unemployment insurance, while availing themselves of new paid sick time funding available from the government under the Families First coronavirus response law.

At some point, COVID-19 will be behind us, but customers, workers, investors, and shareholders can reward those companies that put society first and their profits second. Now is the time for all companies to:

  • Ensure paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave are available for all employees.
  • Seek to avoid major layoffs and offer workers the opportunity to return to the same roles and pay levels after this crisis passes.
  • Deliver safe and healthy working conditions, including proper protective equipment and training to mitigate exposure to COVID-19, especially for workers not traditionally considered first responders, such as grocery clerks, warehouse, sanitation, and transportation workers.
  • Lobby for universal healthcare and equal access to treatment for all, including undocumented people.
  • Lobby for the right of every worker to take paid sick time off, for their health and those of others, particularly in businesses that remain in operation during the lockdown (grocery stories, pharmacies, healthcare facilities).
  • Stop lobbying for big bailouts and harmful tax giveaways and publish their country-by-country tax reports.
  • Put an immediate moratorium on executive bonuses, share repurchases, and dividend payments until the crisis has passed.
  • Pay their fair share of tax, so national and sub-national governments can use the revenue to address the COVID-19 crisis with the equipment, medicines, and workforce it requires.
  • Engage with workers, directly or through unions and advocacy groups, and listen to their needs when designing policies and responses to this crisis. In no way should companies manipulate this crisis to violate existing collective bargaining agreements.
  • Ensure that workers receive a fair severance package with health benefits should a company shut its doors.
  • Provide flexible hours and remote work if possible to allow for caregiving while children are out of school and family members may be sick.
  • Ensure workers have unemployment insurance certification if their hours are being zeroed out.
  • Call on the administration to invoke the Defense Production Act to ensure business is producing the products needed to fight the pandemic, including protective equipment, testing, medicines, and other necessities.
  • Pharmaceutical corporations should ensure that any treatment or vaccines they develop are affordable and accessible to all.
  • Support suppliers, and by extension, supply chain workers with on-time payments and longer-term contracts.
  • Do not take advantage of lowering prices and wages to gouge suppliers or pay workers below a living wage.

It is the duty of governments to protect our health at this time, but this crisis also offers the opportunity for a turning point in our economy. As we work to rebuild our economy, we must ensure that it serves all of us, not just the top one percent. The private sector can—and must—be a partner in that transformation for our future.

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