Companies Have an Ethical Duty to Protect Their Workers from COVID-19

Many factors go into a company’s success. Offering good products or services and having sound business strategies are certainly among these. But ask most CEOs and they will tell you that perhaps the most important driver of success is a company’s employees. It’s difficult to conceive how companies like Amazon and Walmart, for instance, could have attained their remarkable success without their workers.

Alarmingly, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have been reporting that they feel unsafe at work, and that their companies are not doing enough to keep them safe by providing protective equipment, implementing social distancing, notifying them when coworkers have become infected, and offering sick pay and/or hazard pay. In recent weeks there have been numerous concerted efforts by workers walking off their jobs in protest, and just recently, employees from a number of big companies have formed a historic coalition and gone on mass strike.

It is deeply disturbing that such strikes have become necessary. These are all very successful companies—some of them experiencing record sales and/or profits right now. It is simply unethical that, with their considerable resources, they are not meeting their workers’ reasonable demands for basic protection and rights.

In business ethics, deontology is a theory of ethics based on duty and responsibility to others. In society, many of these duties become laws (for example, it is against the law to kill people or steal from them). However, behaving ethically means that we must go beyond simply following the law — for example, we should treat each other with respect and dignity, even though it is not legally required that we do so.

The eminent ethics scholar Archie Carroll proposed a model of business ethics known as the pyramid of corporate social responsibility. The model contains four levels of responsibility. At the bottom is economic responsibility, or the duty to make a profit for shareholders. Next is legal responsibility— in the process of making money, businesses must follow the law. Above that is ethical responsibility, or the standards of conduct that are not dictated by law, but that many people would agree are important. And at the highest level is philanthropic responsibility, the responsibility to be a good corporate citizen.

A closer look at these levels of corporate responsibilities reveals insights into how companies should operate today. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), companies must provide their workers with “…a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The burning question today is: how much protection are companies obligated to provide their employees during the COVID-19 crisis? This question is where the distinction between “legal” and “ethical” arises. Although a business might be technically following the law (in some parts of the country) by not ensuring social distancing or providing masks, that company clearly has an ethical obligation to do so. When businesses do not provide strong protections against the virus to their workers, they are risking the health and safety of not just their employees, but of their customers and their communities. This can be seen explicitly during this pandemic in which each worker who gets infected can lead to ripple effects of countless other people getting sick.

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If small businesses with limited resources are unable to provide adequate protections for their workers at this time, it is better that they refrain from doing business at all (indeed, many businesses have taken this painful step). But when it comes to big companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Target, there is simply no reason for not doing everything possible to keep their workers safe.

Sometimes in business ethics, arguments are made which point to the financial benefits for companies that behave ethically. Such arguments are inherently controversial (shouldn’t a business do the right thing because it is the right thing, not because it will make the company more profitable?). But at a time like this pandemic, when employees are putting their lives on the line every day, arguments about the financial benefits of ethical behavior are both pointless and deeply offensive. Companies must act decisively because of their duties to their workers, period.

The philosopher Robert Solomon wrote that businesses “all too readily fall into the trap of beginning with the assumption of the corporation as an autonomous, independent entity, which then needs to consider its obligations to the surrounding community. But corporations like ‘individuals’ are part and parcel of the communities that created them, and the responsibilities that they bear are not the products of argument or implicit contracts but intrinsic to their very existence as social entities.”

Ethics scholars, as well as enlightened executives, recognize that businesses have a duty to all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders. As a key stakeholder, the employees of a company deserve to be protected from COVID-19 to the fullest extent possible. Anything less is unethical and indefensible.