Foundations and Donors Step Up Grants to Help Workers Hurt by the Pandemic

In the coronavirus era, the heroes drive delivery trucks, bag groceries, and clean hospital floors. As those employees have stayed on the job, risking their lives to ensure others can stay comfortable in seclusion, a new movement is underway to help those workers.

Foundations that have long supported labor groups are stepping up their funding and recruiting others to join a movement that some experts think could lead to sweeping policy changes.

On Tuesday, a group of eight grant makers and individual donors committed $7.1 million to the Families and Workers Fund, which will make grants for emergencies and for advocacy efforts to push for long-term policy efforts to reshape labor regulation.

Donors to the fund include the Amalgamated, Annie E. Casey, Ford, JPB, and W.K. Kellogg foundations, and Open Society foundations as well as Schmidt Futures and the philanthropist Abigail Disney.

The group hopes to attract other donors and create a fund totaling $20 million.

Some of the donors have deep roots in the labor movement. The Amalgamated Foundation, for instance, grew out of a bank created by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1923.

Others, like Ford and Open Society, have increased their support for workers over the past decade.

And some are newcomers, like Schmidt Futures, the philanthropy of Eric and Wendy Schmidt. Eric Schmidt is the former chief executive of Google, which has been roiled in labor disputes for several years..

"We’ve been successful in engaging a set of foundations and high-net-worth individuals who do not have a history of funding in this area," says Sarita Gupta, director of the Future of Work(ers) program at the Ford Foundation. "Some of them are really moved at this moment because of the scale of the crisis."

Abigail Disney has supported advocacy and community organizing through her Daphne Foundation for several years, but she said the $50,000 she committed to the fund was a new foray into support for changes in labor policy. She says she began to become more interested in workers’ rights when she was contacted several years ago by employees of the Disney Company who told her about the difficulties they were having increasing pay and benefits at the entertainment giant co-founded by her grandfather Roy Disney.

"They’re making it so hard for families to live the way families are supposed to live," Disney says about the company. "But they’re not doing anything worse than anyone else. We need to gather all of the clout we have at our disposal and think about changing it."

More Interest in Workers

The new fund reflects a greater appetite among foundations to support labor organizing, enhanced worker power at the bargaining table, and more worker-friendly labor policies.

Those efforts come in addition to more basic help for those in trouble. Already, many donors are generously supporting efforts to aid workers, especially those at hospitals and restaurants and in the retail industry.

Blue Meridian Partners, a donor collaborative that includes MacKenzie Bezos, Steve and Connie Ballmer, and the Gates Foundation, created a $100 million response fund that will go to groups such as One Fair Wage and Give Directly that are making direct cash grants to workers hurt by the pandemic. Additional grants are planned for groups that will help workers access federal aid programs.

People who lost jobs or were deemed essential workers were designated key recipients of community-foundation rapid-response grants across the country, and separate funds were established by city governments, regional donor networks, and corporate foundations. The Internal Revenue Service has made that easier, lifting restrictions on corporate foundations so it’s easier for them to provide aid without running afoul of self-dealing rules.

‘Do-or-Die Time’

Those lifelines have been essential to quell the pain felt by working families, says Laine Romero-Alston, team manager at the Open Society Foundation.

The next step, she says, is to ensure that people who receive on-the-spot help are directed to a wider organizing effort that pushes for changes in labor policy. A generation ago, she says, only a handful of small foundations directly supported such efforts.

As the wealth gap widened and workers’ economic well-being became more precarious, more large grant makers, like the Ford, Kellogg, Hewlett, James Irvine, Open Society, and Surdna foundations and, more recently, the Omidyar Network, supported groups trying to re-imagine the relationships among employees, employers, and governments. (The Hewlett Foundation is a financial supporter of the Chronicle.)

After the Great Recession, philanthropy failed to support groups looking to help workers speak in a stronger collective voice, leaving them all but powerless, says Romero-Alston. If foundations don’t help now, she says, workers and the country as a whole will emerge from the current emergency just as vulnerable as they were before the pandemic.

"It’s do-or-die time, "she says.

Early Efforts

Foundations that already support workers have taken some early steps since the pandemic hit. Ford’s Future of Work(ers) program supports a variety of organizations and coalitions, including the Jobs With Justice Education Fund, the New Orleans Worker’ Center for Racial Justice, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.

Gupta has used previously unallocated portions of her grants budget and has culled money from some of Ford’s other grant-making programs to come up with $2 million in immediate-response funds. The Irvine Foundation committed an additional $22 million to its programs that aim to benefit low-wage workers.

The Surdna Foundation plans to direct $4 million to several of its grant-making programs, including nearly half a million dollars to its Inclusive Economies program, which supports the development of African American and Latino businesses, and ensuring African-American and Latino workers’ have input in business decision-making processes.

The foundation will deploy those grants using a streamlined process, says Mekaelia Davis, the program’s director, and she expects to do more in the next fiscal year.

Surdna has supported groups like Coworker.org, a website that helps workers organize and solicit support for campaigns, and the Economic Security Project, a group founded by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes that has attracted support from several foundations for its Anti-Monopoly Fund, which is attempting to break apart consolidated corporate power.

Some of Surdna’s grantees, such as Family Values at Work, have been pushing for paid sick leave and higher minimum wages, issues that the pandemic has brought to the center of the nation’s attention.

In the months ahead, Davis says, it will be important to ensure that small businesses owned by people of color have the same access to money Congress has set aside for the coronavirus response and to direct benefits to all workers, regardless of their immigration status.

The Omidyar Network’s response has included an $800,000 grant to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Half of that money will target the immediate needs of house cleaners and caregivers, and the other half will cover some of the national network’s general expenses, says Tracy Williams, director of Omidyar’s Reimagining Capitalism program.

Omidyar has also set aside $1.5 million for worker advocacy. The money will go to 501(c)(4) organizations that will work at the state and federal levels to change economic policies, groups that develop technology to help workers organize more effectively, and the creation of grassroots campaigns.

Williams believes that the "massive destruction" that coronavirus has wrought is an opportunity for the labor movement to emerge stronger. One way to help it do so is through the use of technology to help organizing in the digital age.

The technologies Omidyar has financed include Coworker.org and the WorkIt app, a tool developed by the OUR Walmart worker campaign, which uses artificial intelligence to answer hourly workers’ questions about pay, benefits, and organizing

WorkIt, which is free to Walmart workers and licensed to labor unions, generated more than half a million dollars in revenue last year.

Earning that kind of money is helping worker groups undertake the work they need to do to influence who sits on corporate boards, as well as to organize retail or other businesses on a broad scale and push for stronger enforcement of labor standards, Williams says.

"We should come out of the crisis with more power and voice for workers so we’re not stumbling into the next crisis with workers being as disempowered as they have been for decades," Williams says.

Requests for Minimal Protections

Over the past few years, the Coworker.org website hosted about 10 campaigns at a time, with an average of two new ones coming online each week. Over the past month, the site has been deluged with traffic as more than 1.2 million visitors logged on to learn about the 111 worker-organizing efforts that surfaced during the early days of the pandemic.

Uber Eats drivers set up a campaign on the site to receive at least minimum wage, rather than being paid by the trip. Nearly 10,000 people signed a petition on the site calling for Whole Foods to pay grocery employees sick hours. And more than 6,000 people expressed support for a campaign to get Applebee’s and IHOP to pay employees who get sick.

"It’s been a place of heavy and intense activity," says Michelle Miller Coworker.org’s co-founder. "There are so many grocery-store workers and gig workers begging these companies for minimal protections and some acknowledgment of the risks they are taking."

Policy Changes

While Miller and her staff at Coworker.org use technology to connect workers with one another, other labor nonprofits are building support for policy changes that would benefit employees.

The Clean Slate for Worker Power at Harvard University Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, for instance, used grants from the Ford, Hewlett, Kellogg, and Public Welfare foundations to produce a 130-page set of policy recommendations that would help worker groups generate revenue, provide better or portable health coverage for workers, and require that 40 percent of corporate board seats are chosen by workers, among other things.

Sharon Block, the program’s executive director, says the project will continue to flesh out a labor agenda.

"We are not going to alleviate the pain that so many workers are in tomorrow," she says. "What we want to do is provide source material for groups that are trying to make systemic change. We want to provide some of the answers."

Workers vs. Shareholders

Some businesses and investors are interested, too. In August, chief executives from nearly 200 large companies signed a declaration circulated by the Business Roundtable that said they would consider how they treat their workers and the environment as much as they cater to the wishes of shareholders.

Imperative 21 is a coalition of business groups supported by the Ford Foundation that is attempting to show companies how they can fulfill that promise.

In the early days of the pandemic, one of the group’s members, Just Capital, developed a Covid-19 Corporate Response Tracker that shows how the nation’s 100 biggest companies have been responding. For instance, 11 percent of executives have taken pay cuts, 37 percent have offered paid sick leave, and 13 percent have furloughed workers.

Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of the Imperative 21 member B-Lab, says the site is an essential clearinghouse for corporate leaders who are "not getting a ton" of guidance from the federal government.

"There are millions of CEOs out there who are being asked to make decisions they’ve never been asked to make before in a high-stress, high-anxiety environment, where people’s lives are literally on the line."

Beyond that initial response, Coen Gilbert says, Imperative 21 hopes to serve as a "creative space" for investors and socially conscious business leaders to trade ideas for how to make the Business Roundtable’s pledge a reality.

Public Awareness

Longtime labor expert Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT-Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, believes research on working conditions and labor law could flourish after the pandemic the way that the Great Depression created a generation of researchers focused on the subject. Kochan has helped direct money from the institute’s "Good Companies/Good Jobs" program — which was created by a Hitachi Foundation grant several years ago — to doctoral students researching the impact of the pandemic.

When he first learned of the Business Roundtable pledge last year, Kochan didn’t think it would have a lasting effect. Now with the coronavirus pandemic creating a national panic, he thinks corporations might respond to public pressure.

"I was a little skeptical there would be action without some strong countervailing pressure," he says. "Now we are seeing that pressure, at least in some places. I think the American public is waking up to the true consequences of a situation where the most vulnerable workers don’t have a seat at the table to address their interests and their needs."

Corrections: A previous version of this article said that Ford's Sarita Gupta came up with $700,000 in immediate-response funds instead of $2 million. It also said that Workit had generated $1.5 million in net income last year instead of more than half a million dollars in revenue.

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