Companies in many cases are responding to threats to front-line workers with better pay and working conditions, watchdogs say.
  • As the COVID-19 outbreak adds to workplace dangers and stress, companies are in some cases stepping up with better pay and benefits.
  • Companies like Home Depot that aren’t known for flaunting adherence to ESG goals are taking a lead in improving worker conditions during the pandemic, experts said.
  • Still, JUST Capital is tracking many cases where employees are furloughed with low or no pay and few accommodations.

For garbage collectors, grocery clerks and other workers, life during the pandemic has become riskier, raising questions about how employers should protect and reward them.

Front-line workers are no longer just medical professionals, as the category has broadened to include lower-wage tasks such as food delivery and processing. While some employers are boosting pay and improving working conditions in some cases, others resist, according to speakers on the ShareAction webinar on what COVID-19 means for business and human rights. 

“Some companies have instituted bonuses and wage increases for front-line workers, including Walmart and Kroger,” Kavya Vaghul, Senior Manager for the Wages and Workers issue at JUST Capital, said on the call. “Starbucks just launched a mental health benefit.”

The majority of the 100 American companies analyzed by JUST Capital have responded to COVID-19 by putting in place new policies and practices dealing with customer accommodations, production and distribution, and work from home policies. Home Depot has done more than most of its peers in providing additional time off, paying employees to stay home when ill and quarantined, and in other areas, becoming the “gold standard,” Vaghul said on the call.

JUST Capital has also tracked disturbing trends, such as the growing number of furloughs at no or low pay. JUST Capital, a nonprofit founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, said only about a third of companies surveyed have increased wages, bonuses or grants to employees and an even smaller number of firms have relaxed attendance policies.

Amazon has seen a spike in demand, while at the same time it’s heard a flurry of complaints from workers. Some workers claim they were penalized for not following social distancing at crowded fulfillment centers, sent home without pay when ill and forced to work in facilities not sanitized properly after workers test positive to COVID-19. The company says it has instituted “150 significant process changes” that it’s made because of COVID-19 and increased pay to its workers in the U.S. by $2 an hour.

European companies had paid leave policies before COVID-19 and were in the lead of providing protective gear to employees, Nina Roth, director of the Responsible Investment team at BMO Global Asset Management, said in the call. 

“The public perception of who is an essential worker has changed,” Klara Skrivankova, grants manager at the Trust for London, said in the call. “The question I have is whether public perception is enough to get companies to change.”

Many workers are still afraid to complain and are forced to make a choice between making a living and protecting their health, according to Skrivankova, who works for a  foundation that aims to tackle poverty and inequality in London.

Other firms are trying to support their vulnerable supply-chain companies, Roth said. Unilever, the maker of well-known products such as Dove soap and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, has set aside about $540 million for early payment to small and medium-sized suppliers and extended credit to small-scale retailers.

“COVID-19, in my mind, doesn’t put the model of stakeholder capitalism at risk,” Vaghul said. “It instead highlights even more than before that companies, workers, customers and communities are the engines for achieving success even amidst a crisis.”