During the coronavirus pandemic, a previously underrecognized part of the workforce was suddenly thrust to the forefront: non-medical essential workers. Encompassing jobs as widely varied as retail, distribution, pharmacy, waste collection, and food processing, these workers became the “everyday heroes” of the pandemic by keeping America operating while the virus raged and the country was urged to shelter in place.
To help businesses better understand these workers and what motivates them, The Harris Poll conducted a survey on how the general public and the workers themselves perceive essential workers. Alongside the release of the report, The Harris Poll partnered with the Center on Global Brand Leadership to present a panel on the topic with executives from Anheuser-Busch, CVS Health, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a nonpartisan advocacy organization for business.
All panelists noted that due to the sharp and relatively sudden spread of the virus in the US, their organizations had a steep learning curve when it came to supporting essential workers.
Michelle Russo, Chief Communications Officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted that to start, the definition of an essential worker is unique to each crisis. “How do you define ‘essential worker?’ In previous crises, it wasn’t necessarily the grocery store worker.”
Kieran Fagan, VP of Communications at CVS Health, noted that the relatively sudden onset of the health crisis made it especially hard to adequately carry out their top priority: protecting their workers. “It was difficult to get PPE (personal protective equipment) to employees in the stores with the speed we would have wanted.”
Cesar Vargas, Chief External Affairs Officer at Anheuser-Busch, said that despite the unique challenges that the pandemic has posed the business, the pandemic also created an opportunity for Anheuser-Busch to give back to their community (though initiatives such as producing hand sanitizer with ethanol from their distilleries), creating a distinct sense of pride for their essential workforce that made them feel closely tied to the mission of the company.
The panel, which was moderated by Matthew Quint, Director of the Center on Global Brand Leadership, also discussed the new equipment businesses need to protect essential workers (such as plexiglass shields at counters), paid sick leave and hazard pay, and strategies for reopening businesses safely.