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Corporations, Companies Step Up for Their Employees in Midst of COVID-19

"Our first priority was helping direct people – many of them non-English speaking – to the right agency for unemployment insurance as fast as possible"

Alexandria, Virginia – Way before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, the sign in the bathroom at River City Roll, an upscale bowling alley in Richmond, Virginia, read: “Please wash your hands before playing with our balls.”

River City Roll gets its message across.

Now that the 22,000-square-foot establishment has closed until the coronavirus pandemic gets its greedy hands off the nation, the owners are committed to taking care of their employees. Forced to lay off all 58 of their staff, from bartenders and servers to cooks, dishwashers and mechanics, they sent each person home with two weeks of pay and bags full of groceries.

Proceeds from the gift cards they are selling are earmarked for employees, all of whom are eligible for rehire. Eight salaried managers are being kept on payroll indefinitely. “We are nothing without our people,” shares Rob Long, founder of River City Roll. “We want them to know we care. And we want them back when the dust settles.”

Supporting Employees

The crippled restaurant industry in tourist-destination Alexandria, Virginia, is pivoting to safer curbside food delivery, a vital lifeline for Lena’s Woodfired Pizza & Tap, Dishes of India, Kaizen Tavern and popular caterer Charlene’s Kitchen. At the same time, restaurateurs across the city are directly addressing the devastating loss of income suffered by people whose food, rent, gas, car payments and student loans hinge on full tables.

Dishes of India Indian Restaurant serving Alexandria and Washington DC is open for take-out business. No dining in right now. For those who prefer curbside pickup, they are happy to bring the food out to the car.

Alexandria Restaurant Partners is working tirelessly and creatively to cushion the disrupted lives of 400 local employees. “Our first priority was helping direct people – many of them non-English speaking – to the right agency for unemployment insurance as fast as possible, helping them navigate bureaucracy.” With five of their six restaurants closed, ARP is using Lena’s kitchen to prepare meals for four, distributed to employees three times a week along with boxes packed with food, toilet paper and small cash stipends.

Alexandria Restaurant Partners is using Lena’s kitchen as its team members pack food and supply boxes for temporarily laid-off employees.

But the restaurant ecosystem includes customers, vendors and government agencies, too. “Today alone, Keany Produce donated $3000 of produce toward our effort,” smiles ARP partner Scott Shaw. Like River City Roll, local industry leaders like ARP and D.C.’s ThinkFood are funneling proceeds from gift cards sales to relieve the burden on out-of-work employees.

“We blew through $50,000 of gift card sales in the first three days. City officials have been meeting with us twice a week for almost three weeks. I have never been prouder to be partnering with the City of Alexandria,” added Shaw.

Meanwhile, the entire company has been furloughed, including partners who are working for free until business is up and running again.

Big Business Coming Through Too

Supporting employees during this trying time isn’t the lone purview of small businesses. The national landscape is equally full of stories of companies doing the right, and often difficult, thing.

Costco, overwhelmed by demand, is hiring temporary workers and giving people with restaurant experience priority. GrubHub, Postmates and UberEats have temporarily suspended charging restaurants for food delivery services – protecting their businesses by protecting their supply chain.

Seattle-based retail giant Nordstrom has shuttered its perfumed doors until April 1, but is living out its people-focused legacy, paying employees their hourly base and continuing benefits.

Beer Gets Tapped Too

Boston Beer Company, home to brands like Samuel Adams, Truly and Angry Orchard, has also watched business dry up. Colleges going online and sending students home has drained bars and restaurants of thirsty patrons. Last week, the company called a phone meeting to dissolve its student brand ambassador program at schools like the University of Virginia and the University of Mississippi.

“We kind of saw it coming,” retells Erin Donaldson, a senior at Ole Miss from Atlanta, Georgia. The student sales rep had enjoyed her “great part-time college job” hawking spiked seltzer and had zero expectations of her employer. “We were such a teeny portion of a big national brand,” she adds. So when the meeting ended with an extra week of pay and free company swag, the journalism major walked away knowing what it was to lose a job – and to be treated well by an employer.

Protecting Emotional Health

For many organizations, their employees’ emotional well being is as critical as financial triage. Management consultants like RIVA Solutions and Accenture, as well as nonprofits like Catholic Relief Services, are practicing what they preach, checking in with their teams face-to-face by connecting screen-to-screen with virtual staff meetings, happy hours via Teams, work-from-home tutorials. “It really is refreshing,” says art director Kate Davis.

Opal Music Studio in Old Town Alexandria is keeping students learning and teachers earning by offering remote music lessons over the internet.

View The Space, a commercial real estate software company, is pivoting nimbly to help employees achieve productivity amid a new normal. In a matter of days, 260 employees in the firm’s New York headquarters, California, Canada and the United Kingdom became remote employees. Some were parents, some caregivers, or pet owners. Some had compromised immune systems. All were important to the bottom line.

Jess Scott, Vice President of People, says VTS was determined to make a meaningful difference for people who were suddenly working at their kitchen counters. “We want to set them up to be successful at home, on an individual basis,” she says, whether that setting lasts four weeks or four months.

Each employee has received $400 to engineer their individual set-up, with choices including a computer monitor, a comfortable chair and noise-canceling headphones (she encourages managers to be understanding when kids or a dog dart across a Zoom screen). Parents with children 18 and under can expense a 60-day Disney+ subscription. To enable remote learning, parents may expense up to $25 a month for 60 days’ access to children’s educational platforms or subscription boxes. Finally, VTS has set aside $500 per employee for wellness-related expenses like exercise or meditation apps, exercise class or equipment, even to subsidize extra childcare costs.

The stress of the quarantine exposes domestic violence victims and their children to increased abuse. In Harrisonburg, Virginia, their safety net is First Step shelter. Executive Director Candy Phillips and Outreach Coordinator Manuela Vazquez have taken the unusual step of sending their entire staff home to work remotely while they themselves shelter in place 24-7 with clients for the next two weeks. “100% of our staff, both full- and part-time, is being paid and keeping benefits,” reports Vazquez. “We need them to be healthy and ready to come back to work.”

RELATED: City of Alexandria Lifts Zoning Restrictions to Make Curbside Economy Work

Kim Gallagher

Kim Gallagher is an advertising creative director and writer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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