Our COVID-19 Policies: Striving for a New Normal in the Workplace

Seven months have passed since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Ten months since the novel coronavirus was first discovered. In less than one year, the world has lost so much: millions of businesses, millions of jobs, and most catastrophically, nearly one million people—an undercount. Yet, given the unpredictable nature of the virus, and the predictable incompetence of some of our global governors, this is just the beginning.

Numbers underestimate the seismic havoc this pandemic has wreaked, and will continue to wreak, on people and our planet, which were already stricken with economic, social, and environmental insecurity. In particular, such devastation, caused and exacerbated by a lineage of systemic inequalities, has unveiled the organizational cruelty of where people spend most of their time: their workplaces.

In the United States, we have seen corporations fail to provide their employees adequate PPE; deny frontline workers paid sick days; lay off millions of families to protect dividends; and reject basic safety precautions. It’s no wonder that a strike wave of both unionized and non-unionized workers has erupted across the country, from Amazon warehouse sick-outs to a dockworker strike in solidarity with the ongoing anti-racist uprisings.

The list of abuses by corporations related to coronavirus goes on, but the list of labor and human rights violations by corporations before and beyond the virus goes on longer. That COVID-19 has ravaged Black and Latinx communities disproportionately is not a consequence of innate biological or cultural vulnerabilities, but of disproportionate poverty among Blacks and Latinx people, directly resultant of the private sector’s racist practices in housing, criminal justice, health care, and yes, employment. Before the pandemic, employers paid Black people three-quarters what they paid white people, and during the pandemic, they are furloughing and firing Black people at higher rates than whites.

This is why, at the very least, it is incumbent on corporations, organizations, and other employers to adopt COVID-19 policies that equitably support and compensate their workers during the pandemic and into perpetuity. The pandemic has indeed exacerbated worker vulnerabilities, but it also has exposed the existing lack of rights and protections for workers. Responses, therefore, mustn’t be a return to “normal,” but the establishment of more democratic and equitable working conditions. Our transition towards a cooperatively-run workplace and our experimentation with a reduced work week (explained below) are examples of our team’s dedication to that contention.

Although MSI Integrity is a small non-profit with limited resources, we are not exempt from commitments to keep our staff physically and mentally healthy, equitably compensated, and empowered as decision makers of their own workplace. In March 2020, MSI Integrity’s staff and board established a set of COVID-19 policies and updated them in April to reflect a changing economic and social climate. In August 2020, our team revisited those policies again and decided to share them below to encourage other business and human rights organizations to adopt and maintain similar ones, as well as to invite dialogue about how we can build more equitable and just workplaces together as a community.

Among the policies are:

Unlimited paid sick leave related to COVID-19

Self-care and care of others during this pandemic, which we understand may extend for years, is not only a personal undertaking, but a service to society. To strip our staff of income during such a medical emergency would be cruel and against our value of solidarity. If any of our staff cannot work because they get sick, or must take care of someone close to them, they will be compensated. Period.

Reduced work hours (32 hrs/week)

All staff will remain at current salary levels but are not expected to work more than 80% full-time equivalent. We recognize the additional stresses and burdens of the pandemic, including to our families and communities, as well as the need and importance of rest to mental and physical health. However, we also recognize the burdens and stresses of the 40-hour work week in general as archaic in the 21st century. Put simply, workers deserve more leisure time in the absence of a pandemic, which is why MSI Integrity is using this COVID policy as an experiment to eventually adopt a reduced working week as a conventional workplace practice. That said, we understand this policy may not be possible on a given day and/or staff may wish to use their discretion to voluntarily exceed this, but the organization’s project planning is based on 80% FTE workloads.

Flexible hours and remote work

Since the pandemic began, MSI Integrity has effectively been operating as a remote organization and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Because of the nature of our desk-based work and the unpredictability of the pandemic, it is unnecessary and unethical to put our staff at risk of virus transmission by working in-person. Additionally, because staff may need to respond to family or other matters during regular working hours, or to undertake out-of-the house tasks when social distancing is most possible, members of our team are welcome to choose their working hours on a day-by-day basis, so long as these choices do not conflict with the needs of other staff, our partners or projects.

Time for research and reflection

Remote work during the pandemic requires a considerable amount of reactivity and responsiveness, as well as time on video calls. But the transformative work we are striving for requires time for transformative thinking, research and reflection. One day each week, collectively chosen by staff, is reserved solely for research and reflection, meaning no meetings or calls are scheduled on that day. “Research and reflection” is an intentionally broad category, encompassing whatever is relevant, needed, or desired by individual staff on that particular day.

Monthly home-office stipend

In March 2020, all staff were given a one-time stipend of $300 to be used at each person’s discretion. In August, staff decided an indefinite $50 monthly home-office stipend was more appropriate, given the pandemic has extended longer than was initially expected. We want all staff to be able to obtain necessary work supplies and to create ergonomic work-stations to work comfortably and productively at home. The stipend also functions to supplement the increased cost of utilities from working at home. Remote work must not entail financial burden, particularly during this already burdensome time. We also encourage staff to use the funds for mutual aid or other community-oriented programs or initiatives if they so wish. This policy will be revisited by staff every 90 days to consider individual and collective needs.

Workplace democracy

This point is less a COVID-19 policy than a commitment to transforming MSI Integrity’s workplace governance and internal processes to reflect cooperative, democratically accountable decision-making. As an organization in transition that promotes worker/community-owned and governed enterprise (see Beyond Corporations), we believe that our workplace must embody the values we espouse. COVID-19 has laid bare the necessity of workplace democracy and ownership to build safe, equitable, and thriving economic and political organizations/enterprises. Workers and communities must be in charge of and chiefly benefit from the decisions that affect their lives the most. The exact details of this workplace reorientation will be hashed out collaboratively among staff in the coming months and thereafter to respond to individual and collective needs, changes, and beliefs. We seek transparency and will make such decisions public as they develop and change.

Moving forward

A serious hole in our COVID-19 policies and those beyond the pandemic is explicit anti-racism. Shortly after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police and the nationwide uprisings for racial justice that followed, MSI Integrity established a working group to examine how we can root out white supremacist thinking and practices both within the organization and in our external output. But we are still at the beginning stages of this effort and recognize our need to do more. In the next revision of our COVID-19 policies, as well as in the broader restructuring of our workplace, we aim to take into account the racial injustices at the heart of this crisis and our country’s institutions generally. Furthermore, we strive for policies and workplace practices that undo all identity-based oppressions, and understand that this is an ongoing process that requires transformative action.

We hope that sharing these policies will encourage organizations in the field to follow suit or improve upon them and challenge us to do better. We also hope that employees will feel empowered to demand such policies in their jobs that respect their lives, their workplace value, and human dignity. Please reach out to us if you have questions, criticisms, or recommendations.

In solidarity,
MSI Integrity staff

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