COVID-19 Shows It’s Time for Businesses to Make Community Health Their Business

May 06, 2020

Early images of Florida beaches flooded with Spring Breakers was reminiscent of scenes from the 1975 film “ Jaws,” when Mayor Larry Vaughn kept local beaches open for Fourth of July celebrations despite knowing that a man-eating shark swam in their beach waters. “We depend on the summer people here for our very lives,” he says. But, as the movie plays out, his decision demonstrates how waiting too long to protect the community’s safety, in fact, leads to the very economic devastation he was trying to avoid.

Similarly, COVID-19 has highlighted the symbiotic relationship between businesses and communities, and a community’s health. If the community is unhealthy, then employees are not productive, and customers are not purchasing. Still, if businesses are shut down too early, people’s livelihoods are at stake, causing them to lose prematurely health insurance, income and, consequently, food and housing security.

The question remains: Why have business leaders not treated community health as a business imperative prior to COVID-19?

First, businesses view community health as the purview of government and only address such issues via corporate social responsibility or employee volunteer programs. Second, a business typically defines ‘community’ narrowly — as employees within its workplace. Businesses should expand their definition to include both families of employees, and the broader local community, which includes local government officials, healthcare workers and neighbors, among others. COVID-19 knows no national or workplace boundaries; community health is impacted because no business can make itself immune.

Employees are the obvious community that business leaders view as their responsibility, providing employee healthcare benefits, enforcing occupational risk and safety protocols, and offering various wellness programs. C-Suite leaders such as the Chief Technology Officer Stephen Lavin from Redbox stress the new priority by stating “you have nothing if you do not care for and protect your employees.” 

This responsibility is still inconsistently applied across a company employee base, with part-timers and contractors often excluded from healthcare benefits or sick leave. One example is service-delivery employees, part of the gig economy, who are now applauded as front-line responders for keeping the community afloat while consumers remain housebound. COVID-19 has elevated this issue, despite this employee base having always been at high health risk, given its lack of healthcare benefits and sick leave.

Company reputations are still on the line as consumers turn to social media to call out inconsistencies in how businesses address employee and community health amid a public-health crisis. For example, while Whole Foods opened stores one hour early to accommodate the elderly, employees were staging “sick outs” because of unsafe working conditions. In low-income communities, Amazon is donating products such as TV sticks for shelters and Kindles so that children can learn remotely. In parallel, however, Amazon warehouse workers were striking because of inadequate protective gear and low pay.

As an extension of employee health, and therefore community health, more business leaders are acknowledging employees’ families as part of their responsibilities. With businesses closed, COVID-19 forces employees to work remotely, merging the home and work environments. Companies such as CVS and Target are offering employees back-up dependent care. Before COVID-19, companies generally considered an employee’s request to leave early to pick up their children from school or stay home to care for a sick family member, a productivity loss. Now, these tasks are met with sympathy and flexibility.

COVID-19 is creating a permanent cultural shift that will embolden communities — particularly employees, consumers, and policy makers — to ask more of their company leaders. While companies such as United Airlines, Tesla, and Louis Vuitton have repurposed their planes and manufacturing facilities to produce personal protective equipment that is in dire shortage, GE workers have most recently walked out demanding their company do the same.

COVID-19 is mandating business get involved in community health in a meaningful and consistent way going forward because it is critical to business strategy and operations.

John A. Quelch is dean of the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School.

Leila Roumani is a program manager at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

This article originally appeared in the Miami Herald, click here to view.

Back to top