By Amelia Brandt Eller, VP, Purpose & Cali Pitchel, VP, Strategy & Insights
Much digital ink has been spilled on what the “new normal” will look like for white-collar workers in a post-COVID-19 world. As these non-essential employees continue their at-home work and ponder what a return to the office might look like, essential workers – health care workers, of course, but also grocery clerks, bus drivers, first responders and farmworkers – have been in the thick of it for weeks. COVID-19 has illuminated many facets of American society, and the lack of protection for part-time, hourly and especially gig economy workers has never been more apparent.
“We’re all in this together… but some people are more on the frontlines than others.” – Gayle King on CBS This Morning, April 30, 2020
On Friday, May 1, hourly workers for retailers and gig workers for grocery delivery apps participated in a May Day strike, advocating for basic protections such as paid leave, personal protective gear and employer-sponsored health insurance. Workers are also demanding changes to their employers’ business practices – requesting that companies stop shipping non-essential items, pushing for masks to be mandatory for all customers and fighting for a 10% default tip setting in delivery apps (perish the thought of leaving a 0% tip on grocery delivery during COVID-19).
While mass labor actions like these are common in some parts of the global North, especially Western Europe, they haven’t been on the U.S. national consciousness since the 1970s. We believe these actions are starting to attract the attention of American consumers, amplifying the challenges hourly workers have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers, including many white-collar employees, are beginning to take note of the experiences of our current front-line workers and their lack of protections.
Our ongoing coronavirus research, the Porter Novelli COVID-19 Tracker, explores how Americans feel about companies’ responsibilities during this crisis. It’s not surprising that 75 percent of Americans surveyed believe companies have a responsibility to support coronavirus relief, with 77 percent believing that companies must make decisions that prioritize the broader community. But there is something else popping up in our research: Americans are seemingly prioritizing workers above all else.
It is widely understood that employers serve as a social safety net, with 68 percent of respondents believing that companies should ensure their employees continue receiving pay and benefits, while the same 68 percent want to see companies implement policies to protect the health and safety of their employees. And while people appreciate companies donating money (54 percent) or lending their marketing resources to communicate public health information (38 percent), the care that companies take for their employees has far greater resonance, with 81 percent saying that companies have more responsibility than ever to create healthy workspaces. What’s more, 71 percent of people surveyed say they believe the pandemic will force companies to behave more responsibly long-term.
“We talk about how we’re all in this together, but we don’t all suffer the same consequences and pain that COVID-19 inflicts. To put it bluntly, essential workers are being asked to do more. Most of us continue to feel safe because essential workers don’t get to feel safe.” – Forbes, May 6, 2020
We are also finding that COVID-19 behavior will likely translate into reputational and sales impacts, as 75 percent of Americans surveyed say they’ll remember which companies stepped up during COVID-19. And almost as many (70 percent) say they will stop buying products or services if they learn of a company’s irresponsible practices during this time.
With hourly workers organizing and mainstream consumers taking notice, the message to corporations is clear: provide workers with benefits that support the essential nature of their work – or face growing consumer backlash and increased interest in unionizing. If passed, Senator Mitt Romney’s Patriot Pay Act will provide some support to essential workers in the form of an hourly premium. But we believe that forward-thinking, Purpose-driven companies will prioritize enhanced benefits for hourly workers in addition to a host of other urgent post-COVID-19 world considerations.