COVID Impact: Workforce Trends.

As many areas of the country begin phased reopenings from COVID-19 lockdowns, employers are weighing the best approach for their own workplaces. Some have already informed employees that they can expect work-from-home measures to last through the rest of this year, but others are gearing up to return to normal operation as soon as possible. Returning to a pre-COVID-19 state of affairs may not be as simple as some hope. The pandemic has created a litany of challenges in keeping employees safe, happy, and healthy, and added pressure to existing debates about employee rights and protections. As employers sketch out their plans to resume operations, they should ensure they have messaging to respond to each of these issues. Working From Home Many employees are probably eager for a change in scenery from the makeshift home offices they’ve constructed. But for others, working from home has been a godsend—one they’ll insist on keeping long after the pandemic ends. This puts employers in the hot seat when it comes to answering questions about long-term teleworking policies. After an initially jarring transition, many companies have found that allowing employees to telework has not significantly harmed productivity. In the face of this reality, the old managerial claim that teleworking “wouldn’t work” won’t stand up to scrutiny. Employers will need to make definitive decisions about what their work-from-home policies will look like moving forward; if they choose to limit or bar the practice, they’ll need a compelling explanation for that decision to mitigate negative employee reactions and risk of increased turnover. Paid Sick Leave Even for workers who have been spared from layoffs or furloughs, COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on how difficult it can be to balance work and health. Nearly a quarter of all employees in the United States (24%) do not receive any paid sick leave. The lack of sick leave is particularly common among lower-wage workers more likely to live paycheck-to-paycheck, increasing the pressure to come to work even when sick (and risk spreading infectious illnesses to others). As the nation reopens, expect mounting calls for paid sick leave for all employees. Recognizing the broad societal cooperation necessary to address a pandemic, many employers may begin to offer paid sick leave on their own. Companies that resist could find themselves on increasingly thin ice, facing claims that they are contributing a significant public health risk. Any employer choosing to go down this path will need an ironclad messaging strategy for responding to such criticisms—and even that may not be enough. Workplace Safety and Unionization Employers now need to prove that they can keep employees safe in the workplace. Many have been accused of falling short here, with industry giants like Smithfield Foods making headlines for their role in breeding coronavirus hot spots. A corresponding uptick in complaints about workplace safety to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests the issue is widespread. Many of these complaints have come at the behest of labor unions protecting the workers they represent. The history of labor relations in the United States is a fraught one, to say the least, and as historians have noted, pressures for unionization tend to spike during periods of great economic turmoil and anxiety. As COVID-19 continues to make workplace safety a top priority, employers will need to prepare for every eventuality. Industries that already have a strong union presence will need to develop clear explanations of every protection they’ve put in place for workers to ensure healthy relationships with their union counterparts. And for industries that have little to no union presence, a detailed messaging hierarchy covering every scenario will be needed—from responding to the first nascent calls for unionization, all the way to measured, conciliatory messages charting a collaborative path forward in the event that new unions do form.


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