Businesses, employees, and the COVID-19 pandemic - Activate World

Businesses, employees, and the COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak quickly spreading across the country is forcing major American companies to rethink how they approach paid sick leave. More than 30 million U.S. workers — manylow-wage service employees at restaurants, stores, and airports — lack access to sick pay. This fact raises fears that the epidemic could escalate if infected workers do not feel that they can afford to take time off along with the long-lasting economic impact on families.

Lunchtime conversations:

  • The COVID-19 crisis highlights the need for corporations to understand the human risks of their operations. Is your employer responding appropriately to the pandemic, or are more actions needed for vulnerable employees? 
  • Many jobs require people to be physically present. For employees who can work remotely, what tools are most effective, and what should companies provide to assist remote work?
  • Does your company provide real-time public health communication to all employees?  Companies mustbe able to reach all workers, including those not at the worksite, with regular, internally coordinated, factual updates about infection control, symptoms, and company policy regarding remote work and circumstances.


  • While factories in China had already been closed by the outbreak and are now just ramping back up, global white-collar companies have rarely grappled with this scale of disruption — or the level of fear that has gripped workers.
  • Uber urged employees to have empathy for one another, to make decisions based on data and to restrict all nonessential travel until April. Uber added that it was working with an epidemiology consultant for further guidance.
  • According to Zhang Xiaomeng, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing,“The Covid-19 outbreak is just another chance for companies to re-examine the relationship between companies and employees, and to elevate their corporate culture to be mutually beneficial.”    


Companies such as Walmart, Uber, and Apple are now announcing new policies that they say are designed to keep employees and customers safe from the coronavirus. 

The country’s largest employer Walmart said that it would not penalize workers who call in sick after an employee at a Kentucky store tested positive for the coronavirus. Employees who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine will receive up to two weeks of pay and will not be asked to dip into their paid leave during that time, the company said. “If they’re not able to return to work after that time, additional pay replacement may be provided for up to 26 weeks for both full-time and part-time hourly associates,” Walmart said in a memo to its 1.5 million U.S. workers.

Apple last week said it would begin providing unlimited paid leave to hourly employees, including those at its retail stores, who become sick with cold or flu symptoms similar to COVID-19. The company is also urging corporate employees to work from home and said it has “increased cleaning protocols” at its stores.

An employee at Apple’s European headquarters in Dublin tested positive for the coronavirus last Tuesday. That employee has been quarantined, and some others have been asked to stay home, the company said.

Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and Eddie V’s said Monday that it would begin offering up to 40 hours of paid sick leave annually to all hourly employees, making it one of the only major restaurant chains to do so. Workers at Darden’s eight restaurant chains — which include Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, and the Capital Grille — will accrue one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours they work. Current employees, the company said, will receive paid sick time for the hours they’ve worked over the past six months. The Orlando-based company has 180,000 employees.

Ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft were among the first to announce coronavirus-related sick pay for affected drivers, who are considered independent contractors and have not previously qualified for paid leave or benefits. Uber said it would provide 14 days of sick pay for any drivers or delivery workers who are sick with the coronavirus or are required to be isolated, though it did not offer details on how it could calculate that pay.

To support the global response to this virus, Salesforce is donating $1 million to UCSF’s COVID-19 Response Fund and $500K to the CDC Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund, which is meeting rapidly evolving response needs around the world. The company is matching employees’ donations to all eligible organizations, and during this time are recommending they support organizations such as the CDC Foundation, UNICEF, Direct Relief, Save the Children, and Give2Asia.

However, not all major employers are instituting new policies so far. According to the website Popular Information, while local businesses suffer, Amazon “plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees in the U.S., according to a company spokesman, as people are turning to online deliveries at a breakneck pace to help contain the spread of the new coronavirus.” 

But, as the coronavirus spreads, a significant number of Amazon’s workforce — particularly part-time employees and contract workers — are not receiving paid sick time. This decision incentivizes Amazon’s most economically vulnerable workers to show up to the job sick.

Amazon announced that it would offer “unlimited unpaid time off for all hourly employees through the end of March.” This doesn’t help most hourly employees, who in most cases, can’t afford to take unpaid leave. 

A part-time associate at an Amazon warehouse in Georgia told Popular Information that they receive no paid time off. The associate, who has worked for Amazon for two years, works 20 to 22 hours a week doing what they described as “grunt work” — “moving packages, scanning, repairing, etc.” The associate estimates that there are more than 200 part-time employees at the Georgia facility are in a similar situation. Many of them, the associate said, “cannot afford to miss a paycheck.” 

A part-time worker at Whole Foods in Texas also reports that they receive no paid sick leave. The worker says they see part-time workers reporting to work sick “almost every day” because they cannot afford to miss a shift.  Another part-time worker at a Whole Foods in Minnesota says they receive no paid sick leave and has observed other employees showing up to work sick. 

Full-time workers at Amazon and Whole Foods generally do receive paid sick leave. But if those employees are currently out of sick leave and feel ill, they are in the same situation as Amazon’s part-time workers. Sources: ABC NewsBBCPopular InformationThe New York TimesThe Washington Post