Agony Uncle: How do I give all my staff a fair deal during the coronavirus crisis?

In this help sheet series, Our Community’s resident agony uncle, Chris Borthwick, offers answers to frequently asked questions about issues not-for-profits are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an employer, how can I make sure all my staff get a fair deal?

Q. I’m the director of a not-for-profit community childcare centre and we are feeling very fortunate to be eligible for the new childcare package, with all of the team eligible for JobKeeper as well.

I’m struggling with a few things. Some of our staff had already started to work from home instead of at the centre before JobKeeper was announced. I think it’s likely that some other staff members will want to do the same because they say they don’t feel safe at work, given the risk of contracting COVID-19.

It’s difficult to see how staff working from home and staff working face-to-face with children can be shouldering equivalent workloads. I’m concerned that resentment will build.

How should I handle the situation?

Chris Borthwick, Our Community's thinker-in-residence

A. This is one of the classics, isn’t it? As it was, so it shall ever be, going right back to the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16):

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius [the usual daily wage of a labourer] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

People care about fairness. It’s the foundation of all our ethical systems. But it’s tricky, because there are two kinds of fair. With the first kind, everyone is treated alike. With the second kind, everyone is treated in a way appropriate to their differences. And if you do either of those, you can be attacked by someone riffing off the other.

In this case, the government has made its intentions brutally clear. It’s gone with the first system, like it or lump it. This is not the moment for fine distinctions. Every eligible worker gets $1500 a fortnight via JobKeeper, flat rate.

And the same applies, up to a point, within organisations. Right now, “fair” means that everyone in the lifeboat gets the same rations, whether they deserve it or not, because the alternative is the lifeboat scenario described by W.S. Gilbert:

There was me and the cook and the captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And the bo'sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain's gig.
For a month we'd neither vittles nor drink,
Till a-hungry we did feel,
So we drawed a lot, and accordin' shot
The captain for our meal.

The questions of how you deal with allowing a particular person to work from home, and how you ensure that your employees are in fact working, fall back on your shoulders. You’re not alone in being thrown in the deep end on this. You do, however, have the protection that if anybody complains you can say “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” and they might even listen.

Putting in place a working from home policy, if you don’t already have one, will help. A lot. The whole point of a policy is that it enables everybody to be very clear about what is expected of them and of everybody else. When your staff work from home, they won’t be available to clean up after the finger-painting or cut up the oranges for morning tea, but you might be surprised at just what they can do if you have the right policy in place, supported by the right technology. (Online storytime is a big hit in my virtual neighbourhood.)

For more information, see this help sheet: Working from home during the pandemic: Guidelines for not-for-profits.

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This article is just one of the ways the Our Community Group is working to support not-for-profits through the COVID-19 crisis, as part of a major campaign to help the not-for-profit sector to survive, re-invent and sustain.

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