As COVID-19 spreads and anxiety grows, governmental advisories and mandates are changing rapidly. In many U.S. states, bars and restaurants have closed to dine-in customers, movie theaters have shut down, gyms are shuttered and offices have gone remote. Businesses around the world are being impacted, and so are their communities. For business leaders who are able, now is the time to step up and help out.
Chris Preston, United Way Worldwide’s vice president for corporate relations, has seen some of those impacts firsthand as more employees lose their jobs and financial security. He says that United Way’s 211 referral helpline, which helps connect people in need to resources for rent and utility assistance, supplemental food and nutrition programs, employment services, health information and more, has seen a 300 percent spike in calls. “A lot of the calls are around COVID-19,” he says. “And a lot of folks are having their hours and jobs cut. So they’re reaching out for basic needs in terms of rent and or utility assistance. And then we’re also starting to see either family members or members of community reaching out to better understand how to help elderly in this time, because they’re considered more of a vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19.”
United Way Worldwide, which works in about 1,800 communities in 40 countries, recently announced the creation of the COVID-19 Community Response and Recovery Fund, which supports local United Ways as they work to help people impacted by COVID-19. While the United Way and other nonprofits are ready and able to offer help, when it comes to this pandemic, Preston says there are endless opportunities for businesses to make an impact in their own communities. He shared the following advice on how they can take care of their employees, help vulnerable populations, assist area nonprofits and support other businesses.
1. Take care of your own team the best you can.
First and foremost, make sure that as a business leader, you are following state and federal guidelines when it comes to COVID-19. “Sanitize and disinfect your operation. Practice social distancing. If you have a business where you have the opportunity to telecommute, make sure your systems are up to par so you can continue your operations,” says Preston.
Many businesses are finding the need to cut their employees’ hours or eliminate jobs. Still, Preston urges businesses to do whatever they can to take care of their most vulnerable employees, if they’re able. “At least over the next couple of weeks, do anything you can to support the lower income, hourly workers,” he says.
2. Connect your team to resources.
If your business had to make unfortunate cuts, share information with local nonprofits on the kinds of needs your employees have, and share information with your employees about how and where they can find help.
3. Find ways to help keep vulnerable populations safe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and people with chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease) are at a higher risk of getting more ill from COVID-19. In response, a number of retailers have established early-morning hours after the store has been cleaned where only older adults are allowed in to shop, in hopes of keeping them safe. Preston says that businesses should follow this example, and offer specialized services, including free delivery options, to higher-risk customers.
4. Organize a virtual fundraiser or volunteer endeavor.
People need help now, and those needs are only going to grow as jobs are cut and bills mount. Preston encourages businesses owners who are in the position to do so to reach out to local nonprofits and community funds and determine what their needs are, and then organize a fundraiser or food drive with your team, if the team is able and willing.
Over the next couple of weeks, do anything you can to support the lower income, hourly workers.
—Chris Preston, vice president for corporate relations, United Way Worldwide
For volunteer opportunities, look for pursuits that can be done remotely, whether it’s sending digital messages to people who are quarantined in assisted living facilities, offering remote administrative help to a nonprofit, or participating in a pet-fostering program. In addition, blood banks are reporting severe shortages across the nation. Willing employees could set up a donation drive.
5. Help small businesses.
Businesses everywhere are suffering. Preston says that even as we practice social distancing, it’s important for businesses who are willing and able to keep up the same buying behaviors as before, even if in a contactless way. If you used to treat your team to lunch at the office once a week before, treat them to lunch delivered to their homes, now. Or purchase gift cards to your employees’ favorite restaurants and treat them later. If you used to purchase supplies from small businesses, continue making those purchases for pick-up or delivery, if that’s an option. Saving money because you’re not commuting to work every day? Think of a small business where you could spend those savings and make a difference. “If you’re not spending money in one place, think about how you can support others in another place,” he says.
While there’s certainly no silver lining to a pandemic such as COVID-19, there are lessons to be learned about what really matters. And one thing that matters, says Preston, is working together. Right now, people everywhere are stressed about what’s happening and about what’s to come. It’s an opportunity for a business leaders to set an example. “Have grace with people,” says Preston. “This is a time where we can truly show the power of community.”
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