Big businesses are launching an unprecedented number of civic engagement efforts for the November elections amid rising expectations by employees and customers for companies to do more in the midst of a global pandemic, racial unrest and a historic recession.
Uber is exploring offering some of its national network of “greenlight hubs” — facilities with ample parking where its drivers go to troubleshoot issues — as polling places, as concerns rise about a lack of access to traditional voting sites like senior centers or schools during the coronavirus pandemic. Live Nation Entertainment, the concert promotion giant, said Wednesday that five of its concert venues are confirmed or in the final vetting stages as polling locations, and it is studying the feasibility of more than 100 venues as polling sites.
Best Buy plans to delay opening its roughly 1,000 U.S. stores by two hours on Election Day — from 10 a.m. to noon — to give employees the morning to vote, while Under Armour plans to expand paid time off for voting from two to three hours while discouraging meetings or deadlines for Nov. 3.
PayPal, law firm Fenwick & West and Patagonia are working with the nonprofit Vote Forward to provide workers with letter-writing materials and voters’ addresses, letting them use working hours to write nonpartisan letters urging infrequent voters to vote. Patagonia will also host once-a-week texting parties for employees to reach environmentalists who don’t vote and it will again close its stores on Election Day; its design team added a message to the underside of clothing tags on certain shorts that say “Vote the A — holes Out.” (It’s a reference to something its founder, Yvon Chouinard, has been saying, and “refers to politicians from any party who deny or disregard the climate crisis and ignore science,” spokeswoman Corley Kenna said in a statement.)
And a host of large companies, including Best Buy, Patagonia, Under Armour, Gap division Old Navy and Target, are giving paid time off to employees who volunteer as poll workers, connecting younger, less at-risk employees with local elections officials. The campaign, working with the initiative Power the Polls, is aimed at addressing the expected shortage of poll workers as older volunteers more at risk from the pandemic stay home.
“I think what you’re seeing is simply a general need for people — I’m talking about people who work for us — wanting to have the company they work for line up with their own values,” said Under Armour CEO Patrik Frisk, who became a U.S. citizen last year and said he is voting in his first U.S. election this year.
Steven Levine, director of Civic Alliance, a nonpartisan coalition of businesses aimed at supporting voting efforts and one of the co-founders behind Power the Polls, said employees are increasingly seeing paid time off to vote as the bare minimum, especially this year. “All the election changes that are happening in light of COVID are actually making paid time off on Election Day less relevant,” if still important, he said. “It’s becoming expected by both employees and consumers.”
While a little over half of all states require employers to give time off to vote, not all of them require that time to be paid, and 20 states have no laws requiring it, according to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness. Time to Vote, which has pushed companies to give employees time off to vote, had a little over 400 companies sign up in 2018, but they reached more than 1,000 this week, said Kenna, the Patagonia spokeswoman and a co-founder of the effort.
Starbucks has built a website offering voter information for employees, and says it will ensure employees have the time needed to vote. Ashley Spillane, president of voter-engagement strategy firm Impactual, said other companies are paying to print and send applications for mail-in ballots to employees. “We are seeing companies start to internalize that, basically, they do have this power to help shape the culture and it doesn’t just have to be about making Mom jeans cool again,” Spillane said. “I do think that a lot of this is coming from the bottom up versus the top down.”
Other companies, looking for ways to help workers volunteer that don’t involve crowded poll locations, are setting up Zoom calls for workers interested in sending personalized, nonpartisan letters to “low-propensity” voters in October. Richard Dickson, chairperson of Fenwick, which is working with Vote Forward, said his firm is planning video conferences on Friday afternoons through the election to make the letters a community-building event.
Of course, many companies only offer what is required by law in terms of time off to vote. A nonrepresentative online “pulse survey” by the human resources consulting firm Mercer found that 58% of respondents said they follow state mandates, and just 3% said worksites are closed on Election Day. Some employers may be less inclined to offer additional time off on Election Day in a year when there has been so much interest in voting by mail or voting early, said Richard Fuerstenberg, a Mercer consultant based in New York.
But long lines during early voting could put pressure on employers to offer time off. “What I anticipate could happen is similar to what happened with [the holiday for] Juneteenth,” Fuerstenberg said. “There was this massive kind of social uproar and pressure and employers just said they’d do it at the eleventh hour.” (Juneteenth is one of the oldest celebrations commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.)
Companies that have explored using their locations as polling sites or places to install mail-in ballot drop boxes have had different outcomes. Partnering with Civic Alliance and others, Live Nation said four of its concert venues in Los Angeles, Austin and Atlanta — a fifth in Philadelphia is undergoing final vetting — have been confirmed as polling sites.
Starbucks, meanwhile, said it decided not to pursue offering ballot boxes at its outlets, citing challenges such as regulatory requirements. “We determined the best use of our energy was in providing partners and customers with the tools and resources to ensure their voice was heard this upcoming election season,” spokesman Reggie Borges said in an email.
Lush Cosmetics has also offered 26 of its stores as sites for ballot drop boxes and another 13 as potential polling locations, said Carleen Pickard, the retailer’s ethical campaigns strategist, but is awaiting responses from local election officials. The company also is offering training during business hours for employees on text and phone banking. “Our staff has been incredibly vocal on what the brand is doing in the election this year,” Pickard said. “It is higher than I’ve ever seen before.”