The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted economies across the globe, which has led to legislative action to combat it.
One such development might have an effect on pay equity in the United Kingdom, as it recently announced it is suspending the need for organizations to report on the gender pay gap in their workforce. The government assured, however, that this would not derail attempts to pay men and women fairly. Since 2017, the British government has required employers with more than 250 employees to submit gender pay gap figures every year in a bid to reduce the 17.9% average difference in pay between men and women, government data shows.
British authorities said they would not enforce court orders or fines for this reporting year based on “unprecedented uncertainty and pressure” faced by companies struggling to cope with lockdown measures. More than 4,000 firms published their results ahead of the usual April 4 cutoff date, but that accounts for less than half the figure that has historically been reported.
“The decision to postpone the reporting, while understandable, should not be taken by businesses as a sign that gender pay equity is no longer important, or that these issues should be placed on the back burner,” said Joe Schmitt, labor and employment attorney at Nilan Johnson Lewis. “Gender pay equity initiatives are here to stay, and companies need to make this a priority by conducting their own analyses and taking steps to address any inequities.”
Some advocates of the pay gap reporting abroad are concerned that the suspension of reporting could become permanent.
“I’m really worried we’re going to step backwards,” Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service, told Bloomberg. “Pay gap reporting highlighted a problem that needs to be addressed, but I suspect it’s all going to be forgotten for a while. Companies are just going to try to survive.”
Schmitt said that companies should be cautious to avoid taking steps to address COVID-19 that would worsen their pay inequities. An example of one of these situations, Schmitt said, are ad hoc decisions to pay bonuses, raise salaries, or lessen or eliminate pay cuts for employees who complain, but not for those who remain silent.
“Social science research suggests that men are more likely to complain about compensation, and such ad hoc decision-making can create or increase pay gaps,” Schmitt said. “Companies should check whether their actions will have an adverse impact on protected groups, particularly in different times such as the present.”
Staffing Firm Aquent Providing Paid Sick Leave to Gig Workers
Staffing firm Aquent announced it is extending paid sick leave to all of its workers, which includes gig workers placed at companies such as Apple and Disney, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Boston-based company said it will apply Massachusetts’ sick policy to employees working in the 37 states with no current sick-pay requirements, as well as Canada. The policy gives most workers the right to earn and use up to 40 hours of job-protected sick time per year to take care of themselves and certain family members.
Workers will accrue one hour of earned sick leave for every 30 hours worked. The company said it will retroactively apply the standard to Jan. 1. For workers in areas that already have sick-pay requirements, the company will follow the existing law in those jurisdictions.
“Offering benefits is how companies attract and retain the best talent,” said John H. Chuang, CEO of Aquent. “It is also the right thing to do, especially during the COVID-19 health pandemic which has adversely affected the lives of so many workers.”
WorldatWork’s “COVID-19 Employer Response Survey” found that more than a third (37%) of the 1,510 employers surveyed are providing full pay for employees who are unable to work as a result of illness or caregiving needs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24% of U.S. civilian workers do not have access to paid sick leave. The access rate to medical care benefits for part-time workers was 22%, according to a 2019 report.
Many larger employers have extended paid sick leave to their workers amid COVID-19, and Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to assist companies with 500 employees or less. However, Aquent’s policy is catered toward gig workers who, despite their large presence in the economy, typically don’t have access to traditional benefits offerings.
“While the government has taken some positive steps to help bring relief to businesses and workers, the sick pay provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act leaves millions of workers without coverage,” Chuang said. “Sick pay should cover everyone, especially during a pandemic. My hope is that our actions will serve as a catalyst for companies to treat their extended workforce the same as their full-time employees.”
Many Employers Have Moved to a Telework-Only Model
Employers across the globe are instituting work-from-home policies amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is according to research from Gartner, Inc., which found that 88% of the 800 organizations it surveyed have encouraged or required employees to telework, regardless of whether they showed coronavirus-related symptoms. Additionally, nearly all organizations (97%) have canceled work-related travel, more than an 80% increase since March 3.
“As the COVID-19 crisis disrupts organizations across the globe, HR leaders must respond quickly and comprehensively, considering both immediate and long-term talent consequences,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research for the Gartner HR practice.
Along those lines, Alight research found that 35% of the 246 employers it surveyed have instituted a mandatory work-from-home policy. Their research also revealed that 50% of employers have implemented or have started to implement an extended sick leave/PTO policy.
The Gartner survey shows that organizations, trying to balance employee needs with financial realities, are employing a variety of approaches to time-off policies in response to COVID-19. Nearly half (48%) of employers require employees to use sick leave first, then vacation leave and finally potential PTO for coronavirus absences. One-fifth of organizations increased PTO for individuals who are sick and/or caring for a sick family member; 18% of organizations have granted additional PTO for parents who are caring for children whose schools are closed.
“Our research shows that only a minority of employers plan to downsize or ask employees to take unpaid leave,” Kropp said. “Instead, most organizations are focusing on measures such as more effective use of technology and freezing new hiring to cut costs.”
To manage remote talent during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gartner recommends HR leaders do the following:
- Provide direction, confidence and resilience. Employees are relying on leaders at all levels of the business to take action and set the tone. Communications from senior business leaders to managers should prioritize associate health and business sustainability. Communicate regularly with employees, maintaining an open dialogue. Gartner’s survey found that 56% of organizations have communicated a plan of action to employees in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Contextualize coronavirus for the organization. Leaders should be a trusted source for accurate and up-to-date information on coronavirus and its impact on the organization. Avoid sharing information from social media; leverage trusted resources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contextualize information and data as much as possible so that it specifically relates to the organization.
- Encourage intentional peer-to-peer interactions. With reduced or no face time in the office, employees should maintain regular professional and personal interactions with their peers. Gartner’s survey found that 40% of organizations have set up additional virtual check-ins for employees with managers and 32% of organizations have introduced new tools for virtual meetings. HR leaders should encourage employees to leverage communication platforms they already use, either at work or in their personal lives, to create new ways to work together.
- Establish team guidelines. Remote work looks different for each employee depending on their needs and those of their families. With unprecedented school closures, many employees must take on a double role as they support their children and families throughout the workday. Organizations can meet employees’ needs by empowering teams to adapt to their conflicting time demands. For instance, teams can set “core team times” when all team members are available to collaborate.
- Provide flexibility for employees’ remote work needs. When preparing for employees’ eventual return to the office, empower employees to make choices best suited for their needs and comfort levels. Where possible, allow employees to decide when to return to the office. Enable essential employees whose work requires them to return to the office to choose the hours that work best for them to return to avoid peak commute times.
Brett Christie is managing editor of WS Daily.