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Tina Casey headshot

Employee Activists Test Employers on COVID-19 Rights

Employee activists are calling out companies for failing to walk the walk at a time where showing up for work is now life-threatening due to COVID-19.
By Tina Casey

Even as the death toll from the COVID-19 outbreak mounts, millions of ordinary U.S. workers have continued reporting for duty. Their companies call them “heroes” for bringing the necessities of daily life — food, medicine, and of course, toilet paper — to the public, regardless of any stay-at-home orders.

However, calling someone a hero and treating them as such are two different things. Employee activists are now calling companies to account for failing to walk the corporate social responsibility walk in a situation where simply showing up for work is a life-threatening proposition.

COVID-19 reveals cracks in the CSR façade

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed two major cracks in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and employee relations.

One problem has to do with shortcomings in policies regarding paid or unpaid sick leave and furloughs, as well as layoffs. The lack of financial protection for workers disrupted by the COVID-19 outbreak is especially acute among companies that rely heavily on gig workers and part-time employees.

The other problem has with workers who are required to report to their jobs in order to receive compensation.

In effect, the “lockdown” response to COVID-19 acknowledges that millions of ordinary workers are entering a potentially life-threatening environment every time they go to their job, with little if any training in biohazards and personal protection, and without a ready supply of appropriate protective gear.

That kind of training is routine in emergency response, health care and various fields involving industry and science. It is practically foreign territory, though, among the thousands of supermarkets, warehouses and delivery systems sprawling across the U.S.

Employee activists speak out - and walk out

Some CEOs have offered to close the financial gap by redirecting their salaries to financial relief for workers, including Yum! Brands CEO David Gibbs.

That leaves the pressing issue of employees who are still reporting to work in potentially unsafe conditions.

Workers at Instacart, for example, have turned the media spotlight onto the issue of worker safety with a strike on Monday, citing a lack of hand sanitizer among other basic precautions.

A number of Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island also walked off the job on Monday, calling for hazard pay and protective equipment.

In addition, workers at Amazon-owned Whole Foods have been organizing a sickout scheduled for Tuesday. The sickout was expected to be the largest worker action of its kind in the 39-year history of Whole Foods (note: Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon in 2017).

Reuters also reported scattered worker walkouts or boycotts by employees at the North Carolina locations of McDonald’s, Walmart, Harris Teeter, Waffle House, Family Dollar and Food Lion last Friday.

Falling down on employee protections under COVID-19

All of this is a particularly bad look for Amazon. The company established a worker relief fund with $25 million in seed money, but in the glare of the media spotlight that seems like a mere pittance, considering that Amazon’s founder, CEO and President is widely considered the richest man in the world.

Adding fuel to the media fire, the relief fund’s online landing page initially appeared to solicit additional money from the general public.

Even more fuel was piled on earlier this week, when Amazon reportedly fired an employee activist, sparking interest from New York State Attorney General Letitia James for a possible violation of labor law.

Stepping up on ensuring worker protection

CEOs are hardly alone in their failure to plan ahead for the COVID-19 crisis.

A catastrophic failure on COVID-19 preparation by the Trump administration laid the groundwork for misdirection on a history-making scale, leaving state and local governments to respond with a patchwork of actions that have yet to coalesce around a clear and consistent national strategy.

Nevertheless, the ball has been dropped, and now is the time for CEOs to demonstrate just how serious they really are about their employees and safety – and in the long run, their true commitment to corporate social responsibility.

Image credit: Wynand van Poortvliet/Unsplash


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey