David Olive: In the wake of COVID-19, there are the business heroes and those who are anything but

David Olive: In the wake of COVID-19, there are the business heroes and those who are anything but
Make no mistake, the most important Canadians right now are public health officials and the front-line health-care workers fighting COVID-19 , the disease caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But what of business? How would we grade its response to the COVID-19 crisis?

Maybe a B+.

Without waiting to be told, Corporate Canada began late last month restricting non-essential employee travel. By the first week of March, many businesses were encouraging those employees who could work from home to do so, before heath authorities began imploring us to stay home.

And many business enterprises held off on layoffs, even as their revenues were plummeting, until Ottawa last week announced greater social protections, and especially more inclusive eligibility for employment insurance.

Here’s a preliminary report card on how Canadian business is responding to the coronavirus crisis.

Protecting employees and the public

The performance here has been largely good, and some firms and industries have set new higher standards of corporate social responsibility.

Starting in late February, when the Public Health Agency of Canada placed the risk of COVID-19 as low, businesses began restricting employee air travel. In many cases, 14-day quarantines were required of employees who had flown anywhere on long-range flights.

By early March, social-distancing practices had been deployed in many if not most of the largest private-sector workplaces.

The World Health Organization (WHO) had not yet declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. But already enlightened employers were postponing certain projects, and stretching out the timelines of others, in order to get more of their employees working at home.

By mid-March, Canada’s Big Six banks, the three largest grocers, and other large employers following their example had closed some of their facilities; greatly reduced the hours of operation of others; equipped employees with masks and gloves; and erected Plexiglas barriers between customers and staff.

That approach has been comprehensive, voluntary, and aimed at reducing person-to-person contact to stop the COVID-19 spread.

Also by mid-March, so-called “customer-facing” businesses in retailing and financial services had begun limiting the number of customers on their premises to ensure social distancing, and marking the floor to show the proper space between those waiting in line.

Practically all businesses are now more vigilant about cleaning their facilities, since the coronavirus can live for more than three days on surfaces.

Last week, some large retailers began setting aside an hour for seniors and for employee-only shopping. London Drugs Ltd., the large Richmond, B.C.-based pharmacy and general merchandise chain, said, “We are offering front-line workers a dedicated time to get their shopping done (because) they often work long shifts and many stores are closed by the time they are off their day shifts.”

The concept of “hero” pay has emerged. That is the term some employers use for the temporary regimes of hourly pay increases, bonuses and extra paid-vacation days they are providing at-risk employees. These are workers regarded as heroes by their employers for leaving their homes to come to work.

Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s biggest meat processor; grocers Loblaw, Sobeys and Metro; and Toronto-Dominion Bank have each temporarily increased pay for at-risk workers for the duration of the COVID-19 emergency, and most have made the increased compensation retroactive to March 8.

Arsenal of health care

Early this month, the head of Canada’s auto-parts lobby group said, “Just give us the specs (specifications) and we will build any medical equipment needed, as much as needed.”

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Unfortunately, that expression of volunteer spirit was followed by silence, as governments could not decide what was most urgently needed and who should provide it.

Back in early February, by contrast, Taiwan-based Foxconn, the world’s biggest maker of electronic equipment, including iPhones and PlayStations, quickly retrofitted its plants in mainland China and elsewhere to produce two million surgical masks a day. Most of the medical gear was destined for the COVID-19 epicentre of Wuhan.

It is no coincidence that China is the first and only country to turn the corner on COVID-19. Early on, Beijing called on an arsenal of manufacturers, at home and abroad, to make vast quantities of test kits, protective surgical gowns and ventilators, the artificial-breathing machines crucial to treating extreme cases of COVID-19.

True, many of the world’s leading fragrance houses and liquor makers — including Corby Canada — have been turning out hand sanitizers. And like Foxconn they did so without waiting to be asked.

Which is fortunate, because European governments, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world outside of China, have been regrettably slow in marshalling private-sector resources to fight the coronavirus.

Ontario’s automakers stand ready to make ventilators, and so does auto-parts maker Linamar Corp. of Guelph. But the government contracts for ventilators and other life-saving equipment are only now starting to go out.

That deficiency is also widespread in Europe and the U.S. Only recently have General Motors, Honeywell International, 3M and other firms been asked by U.S. governments to rapidly produce essential medical equipment.

Canadian and U.S. firms are promptly answering the call, but it was dreadfully late in coming. Some of the fault for that lies in business failing early on to make the case to governments that their role is essential.

Some billionaires step up

Into that void, some tycoons have helpfully stepped.
Read more on Toronto Star
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