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How the coronavirus is temporarily reshaping the ESG discussion

The coronavirus has brought workforce management and other social sustainability issues into the limelight as shareholder engagement on climate change has slowed to nearly a standstill.

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus and given the recommendations of health officials, governments around the world are ordering non-essential workers to stay home and banning large gatherings. Add to this the rapid increase in people contracting the virus and companies in the retail, travel, hospitality, and other sectors are losing money. Many are therefore laying off or furloughing workers even as nations move to pass emergency funding legislation to support those workers and their companies.

The changes are causing social issues in the sustainability movement to become the focus of shareholder discussions, say experts.

Workforce management issues "have always been far too much the poor cousin, you know, left on the side" of discussions related to environmental, social and governance issues, said Fiona Reynolds, CEO of PRI, an international network of investors that have agreed to follow a set of sustainable investment principles.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

But now, she said, "we are seeing, all too readily, play out in front of our eyes the haves and have nots in this crisis. And those people who are most vulnerable are those workers who have been pushed into the gig economy. They have no safety net and this cannot be allowed to continue and we really have to do more about it."

Reynolds in a late-March blog post recommended PRI signatories postpone all engagement with companies on topics not relevant to the coronavirus. Moreover, PRI is forming focus groups on short-term and long-term topics that Reynolds said will likely include proper work practices and ways to ensure the recovery from the crisis is green. Those focus groups will shape PRI's shareholder engagement strategies in the coming months.

"What we need to be focused on at the moment is what companies are doing around their crisis management, how they're rolling that out, how they are responding to COVID-19, what they're doing with their direct workforce, and what they're doing in their supply chain," Reynolds said. "That is what companies need our support for and that's what we should be doing."

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Supporters of the ESG movement contend that companies that take care of their workers, customers and communities during the crisis will ultimately perform better than those who do not.

JUST Capital is tracking the ways some of the largest companies around the world are treating workers, customers, communities, the environment, and shareholders during the COVID-19 crisis. It has found that many of the largest companies have stepped up to help their workers.

After reviewing announcements by the 100 largest companies, it discovered that more than half had offered work-from-home options, 38% offered extended sick leave or developed a new sick leave policy for workers under quarantine or who have been infected by the virus, and 29% provided special bonuses or financial assistance to workers.

For example, Walmart Inc. on March 19 announced special cash bonuses of $300 for full-time and $150 for part-time workers and sped up the hiring process in order to bring more employees on board.

Also, Starbucks Corp. in March offered to pay all employees until May 3, including those who had been diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19 and those who needed to "take extra precautions, such as those 60 years or older or who have underlying health conditions, or are worried about or feeling unsafe coming to work."

JUST Capital CEO Martin Whittaker explained: "This crisis has subsumed everything. It's never been more important for companies to ask 'Well, what are we really about? What do we really value?'"

PRI is not the only group that has noticed the shift in focus from climate to social and governance issues. Ceres, the organizer behind the Climate Action 100+ initiative comprised of more than 450 investors with over $40 trillion in assets under management, has also found climate change issues have been moved to the back burner for many companies during the crisis.

For instance, Ceres CEO and President Mindy Lubber held a call on March 25 with officials from General Motors Co. on the topic of clean car standards and the need for more electric vehicles. But the officials explained to her that, at the moment, they are focusing on transitioning some manufacturing plants to making masks and ventilators for health care workers. Lubber said she is fully supportive of companies focusing on those kinds of needs at the moment.

"If they have hundreds of people working on retooling their manufacturing systems, that's what they should be doing," Lubber said.

Investors call for companies to not forget about climate change

Lubber remains confident, however, that climate change topics will become a priority again.

"For the day-to-day, we will lose some momentum," Lubber said. "There will be a couple of months where companies that we're working with, investors that we're working with, are focused on other things."

The call for companies to not forget about sustainability issues, including climate change, also recently came from Bank of America Corp. Chairman and CEO Brian Moynihan and other World Economic Forum officials. In an April 1 letter to the business community, the officials outlined stakeholder principles including those intended to keep workers safe, supply chains open, and prices and commercial terms for essential supplies fair.

"Finally, we also maintain the principle that we must continue our sustainability efforts unabated, to bring our world closer to achieving shared goals" including the Paris Agreement on climate change, said the letter. "We will continue to focus on those long-term goals."

Reynolds expressed hope that nations will, later on, reflect on how quickly they were able to take collective action based on the will of the people and use that experience to undertake a similar worldwide effort to address climate change.

"We've got to take the lessons learned about global cooperation and a global response all moving together, we've got to take it into the climate debate in a much more serious way than it happens now," Reynolds said.

One exception to the standstill on climate engagement is the proxy process during which shareholders can propose and vote on ESG-related resolutions at the annual meetings companies hold each spring.

While most engagement on those resolutions occurs months before the actual meetings, companies sometimes reach last-minute deals with shareholders to withdraw a resolution in exchange for the company agreeing to take some sort of related action, noted Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow. The group has proposed a number of climate-related resolutions at companies this year.