Pandemic serves as opportunity for long-term change, UC Berkeley business professors say

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For corporations, the need generated by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to update their policies to better serve marginalized communities, according to faculty from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Haas Dean Ann Harrison hosted a talk Thursday on “new thinking in the pandemic” with Kellie McElhaney, director of Haas’ Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership, in the first of a new series of talks on business, economics and equity and inclusion.

According to McElhaney, the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities, as well as women. She added that because of the types of job sectors they dominate and their often-multigenerational living conditions, it is harder for these communities to socially distance and work from home.

For Black populations and other people of color, McElhaney said, the impact of COVID-19 is compounded by systemic lack of access to adequate health care.

“I’m surprised anybody would push back on analysis and the data because the data is so overwhelming even before COVID, the disproportionate impact of being Black in the health care system,” McElhaney said during the event.

Lacking sick leave is another confounding factor for marginalized communities during the pandemic, according to Harrison.

McElhaney added that, beyond health, Black and Latinx business owners are less likely to be customers of nationally authorized banks, which shuts them out of the Paycheck Protection Program and hurts their financial chances of survival during the fiscal emergency.

“We need to be looking at the more long-term systemic challenges that are absolutely being laid to bear in this pandemic,” McElhaney said during the event.

McElhaney said she thinks this must happen through companies such as Levi’s, which recently committed to offering its hourly and part-time employees extended paid leave even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.

She added that she thinks it should come in the form of a “codetermination” model, in which employees are involved in the decision-making process of corporate leadership on issues that concern them.

“Take this as an opportunity to address the inequalities that were there before COVID but have been amplified,” McElhaney said during the event.

Layoffs have also historically disproportionately affected people of color, according to McElhaney, who recommended a system of making layoff lists that include people’s photos instead of just a list of names.

She added that companies should prioritize redeploying employees to other tasks instead of terminating them when possible and that businesses in a community should communicate so that if one company needs to lay off employees, another in need of more help can hire the newly unemployed individuals.

The Haas School of Business will host talks like Harrison and McElhaney’s twice per month.

Kate Finman is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.