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In March, when the full force of the coronavirus pandemic was first felt across the world, the UK government initially suggested the pandemic was a great social leveller – with politicians telling us that “we’re all in this together”.

But of course, sadly, they have been proved wrong.

The unequal impact of coronavirus

As the pandemic has unfolded, it has become increasingly clear that its impact is not being felt in equal ways across society. This is both in terms of who is most at risk of the disease, but also who is more likely to feel a lasting financial and social impact as a result.

For instance, the pandemic has replicated existing health inequalities and, in some cases, increased them.  It has also had a glaringly disproportionate effect.  For instance:

  • Frontline staff who had to continue working during lockdown were disproportionately lower paid members of the workforce and often also from BAME groups.

  • Working parents are more likely to suffer long-term career progression implications, since they will have less time to focus on “career-enhancing activities” compared to those without children.

  • Mothers were more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs or been furloughed; seen a greater reduction in working hours; suffered interruptions in their work; and picked up the bulk of the time spent on childcare and housework. This could lead to “a further increase in the gender wage gap”.

  • The lowest earning 10 per cent of workers are seven times as likely as the highest earners to work in sectors that have closed, or which make it harder for them to work from home.

  • Coronavirus is having a greater financial and psychological impact on BAME women compared to white women.

  • Since COVID-19 began, one in four pregnant women and new mothers have experienced unfair treatment or discrimination at work, including being singled out for redundancy or furlough. 71 per cent of new mothers are also struggling to return to work because they are unable to find childcare.

The message is broadly that the impact of coronavirus is highly unequal, and it is exacerbating existing social and economic inequalities. Left unchecked, this is only likely to get worse.

How is this relevant for employers?

Employers have a significant part to play in trying to tackle the unequal impact of coronavirus in the workplace. This is unlikely to be easy, especially at a time when charities are facing significant financial and operational pressures. However, charities will want to ensure that both they and those who work for them are in the best possible place to make their way out of the current situation.

Employers should ensure they have an equal opportunities policy in place and carry out training for staff. However, given the obviously disproportionate affect which coronavirus is having, it is likely that extra steps are going to be required to tackle potential discrimination effectively.

How this is done will very much depend on the nature and make-up of individual charities, but there are some overarching principles which are likely to be of relevance to everyone:

1. Gather as much information as possible

What is the make-up of your workforce? What equality factors might be particularly relevant to your charity? Who might be at greater risk of suffering disproportionately as a result of coronavirus? It is important to find out this information to understand your charity’s needs and priorities.

2. Carry out risk assessments

It is already a requirement for employers to carry out a health and safety risk assessment before they return employees to the workplace. This should include consideration of people who are at greater risk of coronavirus (those in vulnerable groups identified by the government and also those who statistically have been shown to be at greater risk, such as people in BAME groups).

3. Carry out impact assessments

Charities may consider introducing equality impact assessments to determine how their policies or decisions in responding to coronavirus affect people who are protected under the Equality Act 2010. This can be an effective way of understanding and responding to equality risks.

4. Tailor your actions

People are experiencing coronavirus in very individual ways, and therefore employers may need to take an individual approach to employees, for example, when returning to the workplace. This may mean tailoring your response and making reasonable adjustments (even when not required by law) to try to reduce the impact of coronavirus on those who are feeling it most.

5. Address pay inequality

Ensure that pay cuts do not focus on people lower down the charity, who are often women; and watch out for women reducing hours, and therefore pay, to look after children.

6. Be aware of the impact of an imbalance of power

In any economic downturn, power shifts towards employers. Employees can feel powerless and vulnerable and may not speak out to protect themselves and others. This can lead to an unhealthy culture, uninformed decision making and, in the worst-case scenario, an increase in instances of sexual harassment. Employers should take positive steps to maintain a healthy and open workplace culture.

7. Monitor the situation

This is not a static issue and may well change as the pandemic evolves and the longer it goes on. In particular, watch out for the disproportionate impact of redundancies and unemployment on particular groups – such as women, BAME and those with disabilities. Continue to carry out equality impact assessments on future decisions to identify whether particular groups may be disproportionately affected.

A positive note?

There are some potential glimmers of light regarding equality among what could otherwise feel like entirely negative news. A report by LSE and the Centre for Economic Performance notes that these include:

  • The large-scale move to homeworking in a lot of charities may mean that flexible working continues in the long-term. Increased home working could benefit women in particular. Increased flexibility of this sort may also benefit people with certain disabilities who may, for example, find it harder to leave the house or travel very far, giving them greater access to jobs.

  • There appears to have been a shift in the allocation of childcare and housekeeping responsibilities during coronavirus, where a lot of men have been forced to work from home. This could help with the easing of traditional gender roles in the future.

So, while there are some potential positive developments, action will still be required by employers in order to see these translated into changes in the workplace. Coronavirus and the success of home working gives employers an opportunity to revisit perceptions around flexible working and shared parental leave and, in doing so, take steps to promote equality in the workplace.

Conclusion

Although coronavirus does not discriminate, in the sense that no-one is immune, it is clear that its impact is being felt very differently by different groups of people. The worry is that, if left unchecked, the negative impact of this on diversity and inclusion will be felt long after the pandemic has ended and could undermine some of the real social progress which has been made by things like #MeToo and gender pay gap reporting. Although employers are undoubtedly being pulled in all directions by coronavirus, it is important they do not lose sight of equality in their actions and decisions if they are to play a part in reversing the disadvantage the virus is causing.

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Kathleen Heycock, Amy Wren, Benjamin Pass, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, August 2020

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