How can business leaders respond to COVID-19 in an equitable, inclusive way?

Over the last few weeks, the world has been sent into a tailspin as we prioritize our health, safety, and adjust to a new normal. Now more than ever, the world is in need of Equity Fluent Leaders as COVID-19 continues to deeply impact the people in our communities and our global society more broadly.

The reality is, public health and economic crises have a disproportionate impact on women, ethnic minorities, and those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. There are also immense intersectional implications — with some of the largest impacts occurring for low-income women of color.

Despite these challenges, there are state-level leaders, entrepreneurs and other business leaders who recognize how this pandemic could worsen inequities, and are stepping up to demonstrate their equity fluency by supporting workers and the community at large.

  • Minnesota, Michigan, and Vermont announced that their grocery store workers will be classified as emergency personnel, allowing them to access state-funded childcare while they continue to head to work during the pandemic. We hope other states follow suit!
  • Women are on the front lines moving rapidly to improve the country’s response to COVID-19. From the startup space and Silicon Valley, female-led healthcare startups have developed at-home tests, a female-led wearables startup is offering its hardware to researchers studying early detection of coronavirus, and a women’s tele-health company is adapting to the crisis.
  • Major tech companies are stepping up as well. Google and Microsoft are compensating workers affected by reduced schedules. In addition, internet providers such as AT&T and Comcast are continuing to provide service to residential and small business customers who are unable to pay bills at the moment, and providing open public Wi-Fi hotspots.
  • As another example, in light of grocery stores being essential businesses, Target is investing over $300 million in added wages, a new paid leave program, bonus payouts, and relief fund contributions to support its front-line workers. The wage increase applies to all full-time and part-time hourly workers in stores and distribution centers, and its relief fund supports most impacted team members, local community members, and national/global non-profits assisting with response and recovery.

More information about how the U.S.’s largest corporations are reacting to the situation can be found in this response tracker. It highlights some key principles to help guide corporate America in adjusting business behavior in these challenging times, such as putting workers first, and having the c-suite lead by example.

In fact, there are various ways in which Equity Fluent business leaders can ensure that their responses to COVID-19 incorporate an equitable and inclusive lens (beyond absolutely ensuring the safety of all workers). Here are some of our recommendations:

  1. Ensure effective communication from top-level executives to the entire workforce about the company’s response to this crisis. The situation remains fluid so it is important to make support for employees clear — but without overwhelming them with multiple updates.
  2. Provide enhanced sick leave. Employers are required to provide two weeks of paid sick leave, according to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It must be made available for immediate use to each employee requiring such time for specific reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including quarantines, currently seeking a diagnosis due to symptoms, or caring for an individual who is under quarantine or for a child whose school/care is closed due to COVID-19. Workers employed for 30 days or more are also eligible for up to 10 additional weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave Employers can also get reimbursed for keeping workers on payroll during COVID-19.
  3. Consider and support caretaking needs of essential workers (e.g., childcare, elder care, and back up care). With schools closed and quarantine orders in place, caretaking needs are immense. While current caretaking needs may be adding to the workload of employees at home, they can also be impacting the ability of frontline healthcare workers, and other essential workers, to attend to their own jobs. EGAL is working on a project with the City of Stockton’s gender equity team and the Blue Shield Foundation of California to work with businesses to pilot interventions that support the caretaking needs of its employees — including part-time and full-time workers across the economic spectrum.
  4. While implementing flexible remote working arrangements, recognize that caretaking needs will add additional burdens and challenges on employees working from home — especially women who tend to shoulder caretaking expectations and needs. Ensure managers maintain empathy for workers in different situations and that this does not potentially impact employee evaluations down the road, which may inadvertently penalize women in particular. Here are some additional recommendations for managers managing newly remote employees.
  5. Raise wages for workers considered essential during this period — including through higher hazard pay and overtime pay. Gig Workers Collective, the group which organized the Instacart strike, demanded more protective material like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and extra $5 per order as hazard pay as well as an increase in the default tip to 10% of the order (currently 5%). If it is an essential business, improve sanitation and physical distancing between workers and customers. This should include essential employees as well as gig workers who are risking their health to support the economy during this crisis. Workers should have access to three weeks of sick pay to self-quarantine.
  6. Explore other ways to leverage the business to support needs of the community, such as through immediate efforts (e.g., providing free Wifi hotspots, providing service to customers for free or at reduced costs, if feasible), donating to NGOs and other organizations that are providing critical services and support during this time, or through planning upcoming recovery efforts for your community/ies.

These are, as you are well aware, unprecedented times. All leaders have the opportunity to build equity fluency in their approach and response to this pandemic — while remembering to take care of each other and ourselves. If you’re looking for health and wellness resources, as well as alternatives to help balance work and self-care, check out this crowd-sourced COVID-19 Resources List curated by Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality.

Sending you off on a high note: It’s the future, and a kid comes home from school and says “today we learned about the coronavirus pandemic in class, what was it like living through that.” And the parents explain all the bad stuff that happened, and hard it was, etc. And the kid responds, “I was so much younger then, I don’t remember all that, all I remember is that we went for walks every day, you taught me how to bake, you let me wave to your coworkers on your computer during meetings, I wrote letters to nana and grandpa, and we built puzzles, I loved that time as a kid.”

The authors would like to thank Kellie McElhaney and Jennifer Wells for their contributions to this blog post.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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