By: Kalei Burgess
*Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect the sources’ identities
COVID-19 is without a doubt one of the most disruptive events to happen in decades. The general public has been forced to deal with overwhelming anxieties over mental and physical health, loss of income and a major lifestyle change for several months. During such a stressful time, brands have been hasty to not only release their individual statements, but to completely alter their advertising to address the pandemic.
While companies have tried to make it clear they support consumers by producing commercials about the “new normal,” including ones with B-roll footage of families spending time together and helping their neighbors with voice overs assuring viewers that “we’re all in this together.” Consumers have begun to question the authenticity of these statements and question where businesses cross the line between making a genuine message or becoming the definition of hypocrisy.
Store closures for the safety of the public couldn’t be avoided, but what has raised controversy has been the manner in which companies have treated their employees during this crisis. Laid off workers have taken to social media sites such as Twitter to explain the true impact of COVID-19 and the rising unemployment rates. Users from various companies have reported sudden layoffs and furloughs with nothing more than an abrupt notice and no date given of returning. While lots of the companies in question such as Sephora and Red Lobster gross millions annually, employees that are working on the front lines during the pandemic feel their dedication is being taken advantage of. With more than 45 million Americans filing for unemployment since mid-March, what does that say for the companies who continue to use the pandemic as a marketing tool without supporting their employees?
Kate*, a manager at a location of the popular chain restaurant Perkins, expected more from her employer of five years.
“I’ve been an employee for five years and a manager for three. When COVID started they gave me two 4-5 hour shifts a week and I was forced to get a second job,” Kate said. Despite Perkins remaining open for takeout, they weren’t able to keep a full staff. Perkins kept Kate, as well as several other employees on limited hours so that technically, they couldn’t file for unemployment.
With a growing consciousness concerning wealth and the working class, many expected businesses to step up and support their employees more than they have. Although the virus spread quickly, it seems many employers were lacking necessary plans on how to address the situation. Things such as paid time off, set timelines, what to do if an employee needs to self-quarantine, how to handle employees that are self-quarantined and many other aspects of COVID-19 plans seemed to be thrown together at the last minute.
“She [Kate’s boss] got mad [that] I had to get a second job so she dropped me to one shift a week and refused to give me any more,” Kate said. When asked about the restaurant’s policy with self-quarantine, Kate was disappointed.
“We were given a form telling us that if we are sick we can’t stay,” she said. “[They said] nothing about pay because they don’t offer us pay if we aren’t working, even upper management above me [doesn’t receive paid time off].”
Zak Tavares, a restaurant worker in Orlando, Florida, has a similar story working at Applebees.
“My restaurant job didn’t tell any of us that we were laid off, they just took us all off the schedule and then a week later told us we’re all laid off until further notice,” Tavares said. “We weren’t given paid time off, and they didn’t tell us anything at all as far as self-quarantining. There was a severe lack of communication.”
While millions of restaurant and hospitality employees filed for unemployment as expected with the closing of non-essential businesses, employees from other job fields had very similar experiences.
Lina*, who works in the office of a major law firm in Florida and Georgia and thought her position would be considered essential, faced a similar situation. Lina wishes to keep the name of this law firm anonymous since she still works there, but she said it’s a major, multi-million dollar firm who also ran radio ads catered to COVID-19.
“My job at a law firm furloughed me with no warning whatsoever on the Monday after Easter,” Lina said. “Mind you my firm does not lose business due to COVID-19, nor does the work stop. We have cases that still need work done and we still had people getting into trouble and calling us. Every week I was told I would be returning soon, or when I would ask they would say meetings about COVID-19 were canceled. I was denied unemployment for the two months I was gone. Finally, after begging that I needed my job back,” they said I could come back early.”
Lina said that her employer also had no solution for self-quarantining before the mandatory quarantine.
“I was actually told to quarantine because I was at an amusement park at the beginning of March and they were scared,” she said.“I was not offered pay, but I was allowed to use my paid time off. After I was unemployed, I requested to use my paid time off and was told no.”
Even healthcare workers, those on the front lines of this pandemic, experienced underwhelming support in their workplaces. Anna*, who works at a major hospital in central Florida as an emergency room technician, explained a lack of procedures regarding the virus.
“I’m sure if I pressured my bosses and told them I needed to self-quarantine to avoid getting anyone else sick they would have let me,” Anna said. “We made new rules up as we went, so did everyone else. No one was prepared for COVID-19 including my hospital. Procedures changed daily as new information came out.”
While hospitals are quite essential during a global health crisis, supervisors still struggled in some cases with putting the health of their employees first.
“My two coworkers and I got exposed to a patient that didn’t have any COVID-19 symptoms, but we later found out she was COVID-19 positive,” Anna said. “Instead of sending me home to self-quarantine for 14 days they just had us tested and return back to work until the results came back because we were so short staffed.”
The pandemic has been an issue exposing how employees in various fields are valued. Some companies rose to the occasion and provided unwavering support for those who keep operations flowing, but there have been far more horror stories from those struggling since March. With consciousness growing in consumerism, some companies may find that hypocrisy might not sell as well as they thought.