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Lessons On Why Corporate Reaction To Coronavirus Matters

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Were you to listen in on any of the internal calls we’ve been having at RSR recently, you’d hear a lot about who’s being a good corporate citizen in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak – and who is, ahem, to put it politely… not. Brian writes about that very thing in his article this week, too.

This is more than just idle talk. It matters. How your company reacts - as both a corporation and as a collection of human beings - matters.

Paula recently wrote about how this could be Jeff Bezos’ time to shine; instead, his policy for paid time off for Whole Foods workers who are unfortunate enough to get sick is as chintzy as it gets. This, at a time when the people who work in grocery are nothing short of first responders. Think about it: who is exposed to more human beings in close-proximity than the checkout clerk at a grocery store right now? Each clerk interacts with hundreds, maybe thousands of people in a work week, all within 2-3 feet: breathing their air, getting coughed on, touching their cash, their credit cards, the items in their shopping carts, all so that we can continue to fill our homes with the food and supplies that bring us some level of comfort in a time of pandemic. I know they have bills to pay, but these people deserve a lot more than their modest paycheck. Their CEO doesn’t seem to think so.

And here’s the thing: as a consumer, I’ll remember that.

This pandemic will end someday. No one is sure exactly when. But when it does, one thing is for certain: things won’t be the same. Just a month ago, any of us social creatures could go shopping whenever, however, and wherever we wanted. A freedom that seems nothing short of indulgent right about now. But we didn’t necessarily need all those trips, we didn’t need all those products, and we most certainly did not need all those stores. Most were selling a lot of the same goods, anyhow.

So when this thing is over, my hope is that we remember who acted responsibly. Decently. And we use that as the metric to determine who we’re going to give our business to. Think I’m being too much of a hippie? Consider the following anecdotal story from just the past few weeks.

On March 12 I left work for an annual ski trip I take with my friends. An avid mountain biker and skier, this trip is something I start looking forward to as soon as it gets too cold to bike. We have a lot of choices of where to go, and this year we chose Jackson Hole in Wyoming.

The day we landed, things were still “kind of” normal. No one even considered backing out of the trip, as the people we trust to give us information as a society were still insisting that air travel was safe (“The air is actually higher quality in a plane these days,” and “Airlines have never been better about cleaning their planes” were all we heard at the time. “Just don’t touch your face.”) But by the 2nd day, my group of friends and I were starting to genuinely rethink whether we should have taken the trip. The news was starting to change – and fast.

And this is where the story gets instructive from an industry point of view. The resort was acting as if everything was completely normal.

The restaurants remained open – and packed. The lift lines were long. The bars were crowded. The shuttles that move people around the village were all operating to capacity as normal. So by Friday (the 13th), we made a group decision. We weren’t going to do any of it. We’d ski by ourselves in the mornings, get off the mountain by the time the crowds showed up and make all our meals in our condo. It stopped feeling like a true vacation, but it seemed like the responsible to thing to do.

This meant we had lots of time to read the news. And some of that included what other ski resorts were doing to handle the outbreak.

We found out that Vail Resorts (which owns roughly 35 ski resorts across the globe), made the decision to close every location. What would Jackson Hole do? I received an email from the mountain’s ownership on the morning of Saturday the 14th. Opening words, “It’s time to keep calm and ski on!” The hill would remain open, but extra precautions would be taken.

Here’s the thing: we looked around a bit that morning, and we didn’t see much in the way of extra precautions. There were no hand sanitizer stations anywhere, the lift lines were still long, and the restaurants were still absolutely jammed with seemingly clueless vacationers. What we DID see was a bunch of visibly pissed off resort workers who felt their health and safety was being put in jeopardy for the purposes of ownership making as much cash as possible before an inevitable shutdown.

So much so, some of the workers wrote an open email to the ownership that Saturday (still the 14th) explaining why the resort should close. “We are the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort employees who work for you… and we are people who live here alongside you and your families… We are writing to implore you to close JHMR immediately.” Ownership’s response later that night? "We’re monitoring the situation.”

And this is why I love old-school mountain towns. Overnight, it snowed nearly 2 feet of fresh snow. Any skier's dream come true. I woke up at 5AM with the plan to hike up the mountain before any lifts were running and ski down alone (a social-distance-safe practice I’ve been doing for years, and one of my absolute favorite things to do on earth). What I found, however, was that the roads weren’t plowed. The workers had their say: if people can’t get to the mountain, the mountain can’t open.

One hour before the lifts were scheduled to open the email from ownership came out: the resort was officially closed.

No one can say for certain that Jackson Hole’s owners wouldn’t have done the right thing and closed that hill on one of the busiest Sundays of the season. But based on what I saw, it certainly looked like were it not for the people in that one little mountain town rising up and acting as advocates for themselves, the plan was to try and squeeze every last nickel out of the season regardless of what it meant to employees’ health. And I won’t forget that.

Can Whole Foods workers do the same against the world’s richest man? Likely not. And so there they are, still showiing up for us, still putting their health at risk for an extra $2 an hour and a piss-poor if-you-get-sick-policy while news continues to break that Amazon.com is now prioritizing online orders for Prime members over non, all because they pay Jeff Bezos $119 a year in subscription fees.

I won’t forget stories like this when life gets back to normal. I hope you don’t forget which “corporate citizens” had you and your family’s back during this time, either.

Be safe, and next year, let’s all go skiing at Revelstoke, instead.

 

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Articles & Opinions March 24, 2020
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