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How employers can address the disparate impact of COVID-19 on African American and Black employees

Health and Benefits|Wellbeing
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Jeff Levin-Scherz, MD | February 1, 2021

Black Americans have died at one and a half times the rate of white Americans, but employers can take steps to protect lives.

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About our “The COVID-19 Crisis” series

Our “The COVID-19 Crisis” series is a weekly update from Dr. Jeff Levin-Scherz, Population Health Leader and Health Management Practice Co-Leader, Health and Benefits, North America.

Martin Luther King Day provides a time for reflection about the importance of freedom and equality — and how race impacts economics as well as health. COVID-19 has drawn our attention to racial disparities in health and health care. Here, I’ll share actions that employers can take to address these issues.

But first I want to share a few graphics:

  1. COVID-19 death rates among Black and Hispanic Americans remain substantially higher than the overall population.

    Nationwide, Black people have died at 1.5 times the rate of white people

    Nationwide COVID-19 death rates are 1.5 times higher for people of color
    Black people account for 16% of COVID-19 deaths where race is known.

    Source: COVID Tracking Project

  2. Kaiser Family Foundation reports that acceptance of vaccine has increased in all groups, although it still lags among Black Americans.

    Willingness to get COVID-19 vaccine has increased for all racial and ethnic groups

    Willingness to get the vaccine has increased in all groups, although it still lags among Black Americans.
    Willingness to get the vaccine still lags among Black Americans

    Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

  3. Vaccine inequity: Data from all states reporting race show that the portion of Black Americans who are vaccinated significantly lags the portion who are eligible health care workers.

    Rate of vaccination for Black health care workers compared to overall rate

    Data from states reporting race show that portion of Black Americans who are vaccinated significantly lags the portion who are eligible health care workers
    The percentage of Black Americans who are vaccinated significantly lags the portion eligible for the vaccine

    Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

What can companies do to address the issue of racial disparities made so obvious by COVID-19?

There are some actions that are "big picture," and are important well beyond health care:

  • Recognize there is a problem.
  • Offer a living and competitive wage to all workers and contractors, and provide health insurance with access to quality care that has affordable premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
  • Have diverse senior leadership and management, and make strides in diverse representation across all cohorts and levels.

And important actions in the workplace, include:

  • Providing effective, culturally appropriate communication and including diverse colleagues
  • Emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion in recruitment and advancement
  • Allowing for sick leave, flexible work hours, flexible work location (where possible) and time off to get the vaccine. (A number of companies, including Dollar General and Trader Joe’s are offering extra pay to cover time off for vaccines, which I think is a great idea.)
  • Engaging diverse members of the workplace community in planning and executing initiatives to promote healthy behavior, including distancing, masking and vaccination. Non-diverse employees, too, should be visible in their support.
  • Providing manager training
  • Establishing psychologically safe spaces to speak up about racism, exclusion and disparities in the workplace
  • Recognizing the diverse circumstances of workers. (Not everyone can work remotely, and not everyone who is able to work remotely feels comfortable sharing their home environment with colleagues on Zoom or Teams or WebEx.)

Despite the disparate impact of COVID-19, employers can play a role in helping increase racial equality and helping to limit the impact of COVID-19 on people of color.

Author

Population Health Leader, Health and Benefits, North America

Jeff is a practicing physician and has led Willis Towers Watson’s clinical response to COVID-19. He has served in leadership roles in provider organizations and a health plan, and is an Assistant Professor at Harvard Chan School of Public Health.


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