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Supporting hourly workers from crisis through recovery

By Nancy Romanyshyn | May 5, 2020

Employers that put the needs of hourly workers at the center of their business decisions are most likely to stabilize, recover and thrive.
Compensation Strategy & Design|Health and Benefits|Talent
Risque de pandémie

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About our COVID-19 coverage

In our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak, experts from across Willis Towers Watson share insight into what you need to know to manage your business and employees and reduce your risk.

We know that COVID-19 affects people differently depending on their age and health conditions. Similarly, we know the economic environment has – and will continue to – impact workers differently. One segment of employees most affected is hourly workers. They are often the people making, transporting and selling products to customers, and their continued work will be critical to our collective recovery. In short, they are bringing the experience of the organizations they represent to the market.

Hourly workers are now often:

  • Unable to work
  • Working under incredible stress from increased hours, risk of exposure to the virus, lack of childcare options and having to be onsite while many coworkers work from home
  • Working from home but engaging in activities with which they are unaccustomed, like tracking their time, participating on video conference calls or simultaneously carving time out for at-home instruction for their children

This group of workers typically represents a diverse employee population across a number of dimensions. They often are the most gender and culturally diverse, the workers with the greatest variety of schedules and shifts and the most multi-lingual. While they may own smart phones, they may not have easy access to the organizations’ intranet sites and emails if they are inundated with work not performed at a desk, and therefore are less likely to be informed as frequently as others.

In addition to measures taken for safety and business continuity, organizations are challenged with supporting hourly workers in these uncertain and stressful times. In our recent survey, over 800 companies representing 8.4 million employees globally and 4.3 million in North America shared a variety of tactics using different forms of pay to address hourly workers’ needs:

  • Pay for time not worked. 75% to 80% of employers report they are paying employees who are under quarantine and diagnosed with COVID-19 100% of pay.
  • Premium pay. Roughly 15% of employers are paying workers premiums, cash recognition or bonuses for remaining at work while many of their colleagues are not.
  • Pay in recognition of childcare needs. 36% of employers are paying workers who have childcare needs and no backup.

Keeping hourly workers whole means more than their pay. Our work defines us and gives us our place in the world. It occupies our days, it sets our routines and it is fundamental to our financial, physical, psychological, emotional and social wellbeing. For hourly workers, there are added complexities embedded in our business decisions, and it is critical to keep their wellbeing at the center of our considerations. For example:

  • Define “full pay” fairly for time not worked due to closures. While many employers are providing some kind of pay, there may be questions regarding what is truly full pay for hourly workers. For part-timers, is it a fixed amount or by typical schedule? Are shift differentials included? What if employees are accustomed to receiving overtime, commission or tips? Creating a consistent definition is critical for ensuring take-home wages are maintained if that is the intention.
  • Help employees make the most of the resources available to them. If employers are providing anything less than an employee’s typical take-home wages, employees must be well-informed of the choices they can make. For example, using available sick or vacation time, filing for unemployment or the requirements for eligibility under short-term disability policies in the event they are sick. Policies will need to be concise and communicated in a variety of ways and frequently.
  • Ensuring the administration of policies is fair. Nothing is worse than employers with good intentions unintentionally hurting employees. Take a step back and look critically at the rationale for grouping roles for different types of actions; for example, critical workers versus nonessential, part-time versus full-time, corporate versus field. For some lower-wage earners, state benefits must be considered in the context of wage changes, as changes in earnings may trigger changes in benefits.
    Is representation the same across these different workforce segments? Will certain groups of employees be unintentionally negatively affected by your decisions? Taking the time to model the outcomes of these decisions across your hourly workforce is critical.
  • Account for consequences of actions made today on the outcomes of tomorrow. While many are still in crisis mode as we make these decisions, it is important to consider some the downstream implications to pay and other rewards as we emerge from the crisis. For example, how are we going to account for current events in our incentive plans? Will we adjust for parents who were required to take leave while their children were home from closed schools? How will we transition from premium pay? What can we put in place for the workers we have to separate from today in the hope we can rehire them tomorrow?

Finally, continuous engagement with hourly workers, although challenging, is vital to maintaining their wellbeing. Consider the following:

  • Find opportunities to listen. Encourage employees to share their questions and concerns through a variety of means. Employers have helped ease the communication burden on supervisors and managers by creating microsites, pulse surveys and dedicated email accounts. This is also another means of communicating your genuine concern for their welfare.
  • Inform frequently, even when we don’t have all the answers. As we navigate the unknowns and consider options, it is important to continue to connect with employees on a human level to focus on what we do know. Center them on your purpose as an organization and use it as your context. Continue to engage them in a variety of media platforms so you ensure they have the opportunity to internalize your messages.
  • Keep messages clear, frequent, authentic and concise. While you will not be able to provide certainties, you will continue to engage on an emotional level, providing unity of purpose in these challenging times to your front line.

Employers that put the unique needs of hourly workers at the center of their business decisions today are most likely to stabilize, recover and thrive in the months and years ahead.


Director, Talent and Rewards (Americas)
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