Coronavirus is forcing employers to confront inequalities in their own ranks

The giant retailer earned $4 billion in 2020.
The giant retailer earned $4 billion in 2020.
Image: REUTERS/John Gress
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In response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, big employers have been quick to take preventative measures—for instance, restricting travel, canceling large gatherings, and instructing employees to work from home.

But at many companies, the outbreak is also highlighting the gaps in how employers treat different classes of workers. The work-from-home guidelines generally apply to full-time employees with a full suite of health benefits and the ability to do their job from just about anywhere with an internet connection. Hourly or contract workers typically aren’t offered the same perks and have to be physically present to do their job.

Many of those workers are in food preparation, office cleaning, security, driving services, and retail sales, which are often low-wage jobs without benefits like paid leave or an ability to work from home. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics last year shows that just 30% of workers in the lowest wage bracket have paid sick leave, compared with 93% in the highest. In total, 86% of US workers are employed in the service industry, according to BLS.

There are currently more than 111,000 cases of coronavirus around the world.  In the United States, California and Washington have been hit hardest, affecting many of the American tech giants, among other big companies headquartered in those states.

With employees being encouraged to work from home, there will be reduced need in everyday operations, from staffing cafes to driving shuttles. Microsoft has already announced that it will continue to provide its 4,500 hourly facility workers their regular pay, regardless of whether their services are needed. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple are following suit.

Retail giants are also starting to address the inequality within their ranks. US grocery chain Trader Joe’s is reportedly changing its sick-leave policy, to encourage workers to stay home if they fall ill (it is not clear whether all workers will be paid for their time off). Meanwhile, food giant Costco, which has more than 163,000 full- and part-time employees across the US, informed employees earlier this month that all workers—regardless of status—would not be allowed to work remotely, as reported by the Seattle Times. In an internal memo reviewed by the Times, Costco executives explained the decision as a “matter of equity and fairness” since workers at Costco’s retail locations “cannot work from home.” 

The outbreak is also highlighting the dilemma that on-demand companies, whose core business depends on gig workers, have been facing for years in regards to worker status.

On March 6, US senator Mark Warner sent letters to the CEOs of Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, and DoorDash, asking each to address the potential financial burdens that drivers and couriers may face from coronavirus. “Because they are classified by platform companies as independent contractors, many gig workers do not have access to paid leave, employer-provided health insurance, and other benefits,” the Virginia Democrat’s office noted in a statement about the letters. “As a result, many of these workers risk missing income or paying high out-of-pocket healthcare costs if they fully comply with public health instructions to be tested, self-quarantine, or take other “social distancing” measures. 

Uber and Lyft have said they will provide compensation to drivers who contract coronavirus or get quarantined. The former said it has compensated five quarantined drivers in the UK and Mexico. Instacart and DoorDash are now offering customers the option of having their packages handed to them or dropped off at their door, but there is not yet any word on whether their delivery workers would be made eligible for paid leave.

Companies have been increasingly hiring contractors in recent years to reduce labor costs. But since the 2008 financial crisis, an evolution in thinking about the purpose of companies has awakened executives to the caste systems within their own ranks, inspiring Starbucks, for example, to narrow the gap in benefits it offers to corporate staff versus baristas, and prompting the salad chain Sweetgreen to create an emergency fund, financed by headquarters employees for use by front-line restaurant workers.  

If coronavirus turns that awakening into a full-scale reckoning, then the crisis will not have been wasted.