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Companies Risk Irrelevance If Shabby Treatment of Essential Workers Continues

Words by Leon Kaye
Essential Workers

As this pandemic enters its third month, we’ve seen essential workers first overlooked, then celebrated and, now, as they still show up to their jobs while worrying about their health, much of corporate America has put their concerns on the back burner.

It’s curious how Starbucks, America’s largest coffee chain, has by and large stood out for how it is cautiously reopening stores and prioritizing the concerns of workers. Many may question whether grab-and-go coffee and a scone is “essential,” but to its credit, Starbucks' reopening plan suggests the company is taking the health threats of COVID-19 seriously. 

Meanwhile, the country’s largest grocer recently told employees that its “hero pay” is ending this coming Sunday. In contrast, some retailers, including Walmart, have taken action by making face masks mandatory; Walmart says it will offer them to workers if they don’t have any. Nevertheless, across the U.S., the data suggest many workers don’t feel safe while they are on the clock. 

In one survey from The Shift Project, only a quarter of retail workers and about 40 percent of warehouse employees reported new or updated cleaning procedures. Depending on the workplace, whether that be a convenience store, fast-food outlet or big-box store, strong policies are often lacking: Mandatory mask policies were only found at anywhere from 2 to 7 percent of U.S. retail locations, according to the survey.

The most gaslighting, however, has come from the U.S. meat industry. While meatpacking plants across the country have ranked among the worst COVID-19 hot spots, workers within this sector are still struggling to obtain safer workplaces as a result of these outbreaks. In fact, some politicians have blamed workers for spreading the virus, citing their “crowded” conditions as they often live in the same apartment buildings or within the same space. Rather conveniently, many of these workers are immigrants — and few have raised the question of whether their shared living spaces are a result of their low wages. The worst part of this situation is that these meat companies have not come to their employees’ defense.

While the curve in some parts of the U.S. is flattening, the numbers at a macro level suggest otherwise. Some hustle across America’s C-suites would have been advisable many yesterday’s ago, but it’s not too late. The recovery from this pandemic will be slow and painstaking as many people will be far too skittish to return to their normal habits, even after local governments start lifting restrictions. 

Memories of the country’s worst hotspots, whether they are towns, stores or restaurants, will be burned onto our collective memory. And brands that insist they are taking this pandemic seriously will want to boost efforts to protect employees now if they hope to secure their reputations into the future.

From the Brands Taking Stands newsletter. Be sure to subscribe!

Image credit: Gustavo Fring/Pexels

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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