Why Businesses Should Help Furloughed Federal Workers
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the partial government shutdown drags into its fourth week, some of the furloughed workers have been using the hashtag #ShutdownStories on Twitter to share heartbreaking accounts of how losing their pay leaves them unable to pay bills or care for their children. One mom tweeted:
With no end in sight to the standoff, U.S. businesses have an opportunity to step in and help these families — and garner some great publicity.
JPMorgan Chase has already taken action. The bank is waiving fees for federal workers who stop receiving direct deposits and has urged customers who need help to call a special line to discuss options. Restaurants and bars in the Washington area are offering specials for federal workers, like free sandwiches at Jose Andres restaurants, free pies at pizza shops, and drink specials. Some Washington-area museums are also offering free or reduced admission for employees who are home from work.
As the hardship created by the shutdown intensifies, other businesses should step up. Mortgage lenders and major organizations that rent properties across the country could waive interest and other penalties on late payments by federal workers. Businesses that sell food and other critical items — supermarkets, restaurants, and drug stores — should follow suit with discounts to government employees who might be strapped for cash. Utility companies should do the same.
Child care is another big-ticket expense for many families. Even if parents aren’t going to work, most can’t stop paying for day care without losing the spots they’ll need when they return to their jobs. Although nannies and other independent care givers depend on their salaries to pay their own bills, larger chains of day-care companies and nursery schools should consider offering federal staffers delayed payment options. They could also suspend or reduce their fees for federal workers who decide to keep their kids at home during the shutdown.
Such so-called corporate social responsibility initiatives don’t just benefit those in need. They’re also good for corporate bottom lines. According to a 2017 study by Cone Communications, 70 percent of Americans believe companies have a duty to get involved in causes, even if they’re not relevant to their everyday business. And 89 percent of Americans would change the brands they buy to support a company involved in a good cause, provided it offered similar quality and prices.
At the same time, the study also found that Americans are cynical about corporate efforts to do good, and “won’t believe a company is striving to be responsible until they hear information about positive efforts.” So, businesses need to make sure their attempts to aid their communities are very visible. The shutdown offers a great opportunity to get a lot of exposure for such initiatives because it’s getting so much media coverage.
Getting involved is a great way for businesses and other organizations to position themselves as good citizens. They’ll also almost certainly draw positive media attention and social media buzz. Participating businesses also stand to attract new customers, build a lot of loyalty among federal workers, and bolster their reputations in the eyes of other Americans, who appreciate that many government employees already accept lower pay than they might earn in the corporate sector to serve the country. The delayed or reduced earnings businesses would face from such offers could certainly be less than what many major companies spend on glitzy advertising campaigns.
However, businesses should be cautious not to appear mercenary when announcing this outreach. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, American Apparel drew a lot of criticism for offering a 20 percent discount because the retailer was seen as trying to profit from the tragedy. Shutdown specials will work best for businesses that provide goods and services that are truly vital — not luxury items.
The government shutdown is leaving many hardworking Americans who already make sacrifices for their country unable to make ends meet. But there’s a real opening for businesses to take action where the government has failed — and earn plaudits and profits in the process.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.
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