Supporting At-Risk Employees During COVID-19

While you may hear people point out that the COVID virus does not discriminate, one of the most important conversations to have during a global health crisis is understanding and responding to the disproportionate effect that it has on underrepresented and historically marginalized groups of people. These conversations are not always comfortable, but they are always necessary. Systemic change always starts with difficult conversations.

Let’s start with some facts

African Americans make up 15% of the total population in Michigan and Illinois, but account for 40% of COVID related deaths. The Latinx population accounts for 27% of deaths in hotspots but makes up for only 18% of the population in those locations. Forty-nine percent of the Latinx population has experienced job losses and or pay cuts, whereas the same can only be said for thirty-three percent of all US adults. This list is hardly exhaustive and as more data is released the news does not get any easier. It is important to understand that these extreme differences on COVID’s impact on different groups is a red flag on an issue we (those of us who are not a member of a historically marginalized group) have yet to fully admit but has long been true: systematic inequalities have an impact that can be catastrophic for people’s health. This data can be hard to swallow, and an even more disturbing reality is that, for these groups, things are likely to get worse before they get better. But what does this mean for employees and their employers trying to simply get through each week in such uncertain times?

There is no universal experience that applies to all employees. Some work from home transitions may work better for certain employees than others. We are all working in very different environments, and it is much easier for those employees who might share a house with one other adult, than for those who are in a two-bedroom apartment with six family members. Adding to the logistical challenges that many newly remote employees are facing is the emotional burden brought on by COVID-19. I find statistics about the disproportionate effect on black communities infuriating without being black myself. Someone who is black and/or a member of another community so disproportionately impacted has the addition of fear and pain for their community. We will not experience this pandemic through the same lens of emotions and burden. Additionally, there is a little known statistic that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders make up 0.3% of California’s population and recently released statistics showed they are 1% of the state’s COVID cases. While these numbers are upsetting in their own right, the lack of knowledge and communication around these issues incites feelings of social erasure or abandonment for those populations. Identity doesn’t matter less in times of stress and pain. I would argue it matters more than ever.

Be More Flexible and Understanding

Employers should also understand that, while their own employees may not be experiencing lay-offs or pay cuts, their family members–whom they support–might be. With these types of cases, it’s important to be flexible with employees’ hours and provide any additional support they might need. Some employees may have children and a spouse who’s employment is impacted. There are statistics that show that people of color may be more likely to be financially supporting a parent compared to white peers. So, the threat of unemployment or furlough would be much more of a psychological burden for someone who is a caregiver than it would be for someone only supporting themself. Make mental health resources readily available to all employees. When you can’t drop by and check in on an employee in person, you must be proactively communicating what sort of options employees have to protect their mental well-being.

Trust Employees and Provide Support for Ergonomics

There are also more tangible steps that employers can take to support their teams through the new normal. At-home ergonomics is a great example. Many newly remote employees do not have home office set-ups that are conducive to healthy posture or productivity, so provide a budget for at-home office equipment. At Clover Health, we’ve offered all of our employees newly working at home a $250 budget for ergonomics, and I actively encourage all of my direct reports to take advantage of it.

Provide Resources to ALL Employees

There is another issue that seriously lacks visibility when we think of the long term effects of working from home. For certain employees, it’s safer to come into an office every day than it would be to stay home, even during a pandemic. An active HR department should have resources readily available for any employees who might be experiencing domestic violence. HR teams should be ready to support these employees but do so by communicating the resources available to ALL employees, not just those who they suspect are at high risk of domestic violence. This should apply to any support systems you have in place.

These are only a few of the issues that come up when thinking about the effect COVID has on under-represented employees and marginalized communities. Employers should be giving employees who ask for additional support the benefit of the doubt. These are unprecedented times and culture-focused employers should be providing unprecedented levels of support to our at-risk employees.

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Jessie Wusthoff
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