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Corporate America: The Public Expects You to Prioritize the Health & Safety of Your Workers

Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 110,000 Americans on what they believe U.S. companies should prioritize most when it comes to just business behavior. Over the course of six years of polling, our work has shown that the American public believes that worker health and safety should be a key priority for companies, and in our Rankings, it is consistently among the core measures by which we evaluate companies.

Since the start of the pandemic, worker health and safety has become an increasingly critical issue, and there has been mounting research showing its importance, as well as Americans’ dissatisfaction with the way companies have ensured that their workers remain healthy through this time. 84% of Americans believe worker health and safety is more important this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – suggesting heightened expectations from the public. Companies continue to be singled out for both excellence in and failure to protect the health and safety of their workforces, with some stepping up to exemplary levels of worker treatment, and some falling far behind their peers. The public is divided on how well large companies are doing in protecting the health and safety of their workers during the pandemic, but it’s clear the issue is a key driver in the public’s perception of just corporate behavior.

Many large companies are taking action to protect workers during the pandemic, but perceptions of workplace safety have declined. As we’ve found in our COVID-19 Corporate Response Tracker, a majority (59%) of the 1000 largest public U.S. companies have taken steps to add health and safety precautions, such as enhanced cleaning and social distancing protocols, and an additional 25% have offered free personal protective equipment to their workers. But polls show a decline in perceived safety of workplace conditions since the pandemic. Long before the coronavirus outbreak, a 2018 poll from NORC (see Sources for more details) showed that almost nine in 10 (89%) Americans agreed that the safety of workers should be a high priority for companies and 93% felt they worked in good workplace conditions. Polling by Gallup showed a decline since 2019 of those who say they are “completely satisfied” with the physical safety conditions of their workplaces. In August 2020 only 65% of respondents agreed that they were satisfied with their workplace conditions – a 9 percentage point drop from 74% in July of 2019.

In this year’s nationally representative survey – which reached 4,500 American adults – we again found that protecting the health, safety and well-being of workers (beyond what is required by law) should be a top priority for companies, the sixth most heavily weighted issue among the 19 Americans identified. What is more, a vast majority (84%) of respondents say that protecting the health, safety and well-being of workers is more important in 2020 – a year that saw both a global pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice – than it was last year. By contrast, just 65% believe it is more important this year for companies to offer a quality benefits package and support good work-life balance, and only 50% believe it is more important this year for companies to invest in their workforces, support job stability, and provide opportunities for skill development.

Worker health and safety is a universally acknowledged priority for Americans, but there is less consensus around how well large companies are doing in protecting the health and safety of their workforce during the pandemic. While a majority of Americans (62%) say companies are having a positive impact on the health and safety of their workforce, just 43% say America’s largest companies are showing leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak. Black and Hispanic Americans, and those in the lowest income ranges, are overrepresented in essential or frontline jobs, putting them at higher risk of exposure to COVID-19. This is in comparison to a greater proportion of white and higher income workers who have the ability to work from home. It’s also notable that Black and Hispanic Americans are less likely to say large companies are showing leadership during the pandemic (37% and 38% respectively), compared to white respondents (48%).

The stakes are high when it comes to workplace safety, for workers as well as the companies that employ them. While most Americans (62%) believe that though companies are having a positive impact on the health and safety of their workforce right now, a vast majority (89%) say that if a company failed to provide adequate health and safety equipment for its workers, putting them at risk of infection and/or injury, they should be immediately disqualified from a list of America’s Most JUST Companies. Companies cannot afford to walk back workplace safety measures if they hope to remain in the good graces of public opinion. Should a company reverse their health and safety policies post-pandemic, most people (89%) feel that they don’t deserve a place on the list of America’s Most JUST Companies.

While the nation is on the precipice of a new administration, we continue to battle the effects of the pandemic among other crises. The American public continues to tell us that U.S. companies should prioritize worker health and safety – with virtually no change since we initially took the public’s pulse on this issue eight months ago, at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. It will be interesting to see how the next few months unfold as a new president is installed, a federal coronavirus plan is mandated – including a potential revamp of OSHA – and we make our way through to the other side of a pandemic that has impacted our lives since the early part of 2020. The question is, will corporate America live up to the public’s expectations in protecting their workforce?

 

Sources

National Opinion Research Center [NORC]; Survey Sponsor: NORC GSS, with funding from NSF; Study Date: April 12, 2018 – November 10, 2018; Sample: National adult; Sample Size: 2348; Geographic Coverage: United States; Interview Method: Computer-assisted personal interview (CAPI),

Gallup Organization; Study Date: July 30, 2020 – August 12, 2020; Sample: National adult; Sample Size: 1031; Geographic Coverage: United States; Interview Method:Telephone interview, cell phone; Telephone interview, landline.

Survey Information Organization: Gallup Organization; Study Date: August 1, 2019 – August 14, 2019; Sample: National adult; Sample Size: 1522; Geographic Coverage:United States; Interview Method: Telephone interview, cell phone; Telephone interview, landline.

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