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Paid Time Off, Free Fries: How Corporate America Is Getting Out the Vote

Bank of America is offering employees up to three hours of paid time to vote this year. The spirits company Diageo North America has declared a no-meeting day on Nov. 3. Best Buy is closing stores until noon that day, and PayPal is offering a half day, paid, to workers who volunteer at polling places.

Less than two weeks before the general election, corporate America is having a civic awakening, with thousands of companies encouraging voter participation by offering their workers paid time off, voter-education tools and interactive sessions on how elections work. Some are even providing marketing and free legal advice to local election boards or nonprofit get-out-the-vote groups.

“Companies can’t do everything, but we can function in civil society in a way that really helps to encourage and enable civic participation,” said Franz Paasche, head of corporate affairs at PayPal, where the efforts have varied from paid time off to hosting a speaker series on elections.

Two years ago, when executives from PayPal, Patagonia and Levi Strauss founded Time to Vote, a nonpartisan project that asks companies to encourage workers to participate in elections, there were around 400 members. In recent weeks, membership has shot up to more than 1,700. A similar initiative, called A Day for Democracy, has attracted more than 350 companies since it began with seven Boston-area companies in July. ElectionDay.org, sponsored by the nonprofit organization Vote.org, has gathered pledges from more than 800 companies promising employees paid time to vote.

Most companies are quick to say that their goal isn’t to wade into politics or get any particular candidate into office. Rather, many executives say that they were galvanized by recent upheavals that have put issues of race and gender discrimination, economic inequality, climate change and other topics at center stage for employees and customers, and voting is a way to take a stand.

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“The Black Lives Matter and the civil unrest has been a call to arms for C.E.O.s in terms of informing corporate behaviors and civic actions,” said Peter Palandjian, a private-equity executive in Boston who started A Day for Democracy with commitments from the Red Sox and Bank of America. “And I think that’s what’s very different this year.”

Earlier this week, Goldman Sachs announced that it would give workers up to half a day off to vote, paid, for the first time. Other companies that have offered paid time to vote in the past, including Citi and Gap Inc., have announced that they’re providing additional paid hours if needed as well as voter-education resources this year.

The extra hours are likely to be necessary given that a record turnout is expected this year, which could mean long lines and additional safety procedures in light of the pandemic. In anticipation, Diageo North America, which owns brands like Guinness and Smirnoff, is changing course and allowing employees to take whatever time they need to vote without a written request. Previously, employees were given up to two hours of paid time off to vote, which they had to request in advance. The company also plans to set up a team for workers to call if they run into any trouble casting their ballots, said Laura Watt, its executive vice president of human resources.

Some companies are hoping to encourage voter turnout in general. Shake Shack is giving away free french fries to customers who vote early. Tory Burch, the clothing label, designed a T-shirt that reads “VOTE,” the proceeds from which go to a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote project called I Am a Voter. Coca-Cola dispatched a team of marketers to create public-service announcements on the importance of early, in-person voting that ran on radio, television and at bus shelters around its home state of Georgia; broadcast spots featured the voices of Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta, the Atlanta Hawks forward Cam Reddish and other local celebrities.

Corley Kenna, who runs communications at Patagonia and co-founded Time to Vote, took advantage of additional benefits her employer is providing this year to work at election sites in Atlanta, her hometown, with two colleagues. Between morning and afternoon shifts at the State Farm Arena and the Southwest Arts Center this month, she caught up on work.

“I think it is on all of us — the private sector, nonprofit, academia — to help provide safe and secure elections,” said Ms. Kenna, a Democrat and environmental advocate who was a senior adviser in the State Department under President Obama.

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Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

Old Navy, the biggest brand owned by Gap, said it would pay employees to be poll workers, on top of what they get paid by county election commissions. The retailer said it hoped its policy would fuel voter turnout among its young store staff, more than 60 percent of whom are between the ages of 18 and 29. Levi’s extended its paid time off for voting to poll worker training this year and has been featuring environmental and racial justice activists on its Instagram account to talk about voting.

The push by retailers and restaurant chains is significant because it can be especially difficult for hourly workers to find time to vote. After health care, retail is the second-biggest private sector employer in the United States.

In addition to making sure that their efforts are not being seen as partisan externally, companies have been careful about how they communicate internally. Diageo North America has been holding weekly events in the run-up to the election with the African heritage group and women’s network, for example, discussing the issues at stake for their communities, but in a “neutral way,” Ms. Watt said. “We’ve been very clear about not being partisan or not having a particular view leaning one way or another,” she said.

Still, not every company is being so proactive. Workers at Amazon, who have been pushing unsuccessfully for a paid day off to vote, are threatening to shut down warehouses temporarily on Oct. 31 if the e-commerce giant doesn’t meet their demands. And on Thursday, Vote.org, a digital platform that helps people register to vote online and provides information about polling sites, called on more than two dozen companies that have not yet committed to giving workers time off to do so. It cited Pew Research Center statistics from 2014 showing that in the past, 35 percent of registered voters didn’t vote because of work or school conflicts.

Tory Burch, which employs nearly 3,000 people in the United States, was one of the few companies offering employees paid time off to vote in 2016, when its founder wrote an op-ed encouraging other company bosses to do the same. At the time, fellow chief executives, some from Fortune 500 companies, told Ms. Burch that they couldn’t follow suit because doing so would be regarded as a partisan act, intended to favor Democratic candidates.

The feedback was “eye opening,” Ms. Burch recalled, given that “encouraging Americans to use their vote is patriotic and not a Democratic initiative.” This year, she is closing all stores and offices on Nov. 3 and encouraging her staff to volunteer as poll workers, believing that the employee good will it generates far outweighs the lost revenue.

In a note to employees Thursday morning reminding them of their options to take paid time off to vote, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, talked about the importance of a smooth political process.

“The peaceful and stable transition of power — whether it is to the second administration of a president or a new one — is a hallmark of America’s 244-year history as an independent nation,” Mr. Dimon wrote, adding that while he acknowledges the “tremendous passion and strong opinions” that have played into the current race, respecting the democratic process “is paramount.”

Michael Corkery and Karen Weise contributed reporting.

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Patagonia, Quick to Close, Could Be Last to Reopen

When Patagonia announced on March 13 that it was temporarily closing its 39 stores and e-commerce business in North America because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was one of the first major retailers to take such a drastic step.

The company’s chief executive thought the situation would last about a month.

As it became clear “this was going to be a prolonged thing, we had to think about what our business looks like in the face of Covid-19,” Rose Marcario, the C.E.O., said in an interview.

Now the retailer that aggressively moved to close before any government shutdowns were announced is being very cautious in deciding how to open up again.

Retailers like Macy’s and Gap, which owns Banana Republic and Old Navy, have begun reopening hundreds of stores as they scramble to recoup lost sales and as states around the country begin to try to return to some semblance of normalcy.

But Patagonia does not anticipate opening any locations for in-store shopping until June at the earliest and it’s prepared to wait until the fall or even early winter. Even then, it may decide to limit operations to curbside pickup, which it plans to begin offering at 10 stores on May 20.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

“We’re going to be cautious about the way we open up — we’re not going to necessarily follow what the state decrees are,” Ms. Marcario said. “There are some areas that aren’t as hard hit, but I don’t think you can assume those places won’t see a surge in cases if people stop social-distancing.”

She believes “the shape of retail will change.” People will be more reliant on e-commerce and “the return to walk-in retail will be slow.”

Patagonia has achieved renown in the retail world both for its financial success and its unapologetically progressive stances on issues like climate change and the use of public lands. (It sued President Trump to protect Bears Ears National Monument.) The privately held brand sells roughly $1 billion in soft fleeces and camping gear every year while decrying rampant consumerism.

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Credit…Laure Joliet for The New York Times

Patagonia is held to a different set of standards than major publicly traded corporations based on its certification as a B Corp by a nonprofit called the B Lab, which legally requires the company to consider the interests of “workers, the community and the environment” as well as shareholders. It also offers on-site child care and lets employees take surf breaks during the day.

The brand’s approach is being tested by the pandemic. Patagonia must balance the future of its business, which it acknowledges could shrink, with the health and financial well-being of its employees.

The brand has long viewed its stores as community gathering places, where people can buy outdoor gear but also see documentaries, hear talks by environmental activists and get equipment repaired. Since closing, it has tried to connect with its loyal customers online with offerings like yoga sessions and “regenerative home garden classes.”

But the retail industry has been devastated by the pandemic and Patagonia is no exception. Its sales have dropped 50 percent in North America. Outside of its own stores and website, roughly half of Patagonia’s business comes from distributing its wares through local outdoor shops near mountains, streams and oceans, and national retail chains like REI and Nordstrom, which have all been badly hit by the crisis.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

“Even though we are kind of a beacon in the retail world, we’re not immune and we’re not invincible and this has hit us incredibly hard,” Ms. Marcario said. “The challenge that we face now is how do we take care of our employees and our community while all of this is happening in a way that’s true to our values?”

Patagonia quietly started accepting online orders again on April 9 after overhauling its distribution center in Reno, Nev. Workers now have their temperatures checked, stagger exits and are often 30 feet apart. On April 20, the company sent an email to customers with the subject line: “Back to Business.”

“We know the distribution center warehouse is the linchpin of our business, because if it’s not working, there are no sales being satisfied to our wholesale and e-commerce channels and our stores can’t get product,” said Todd Soller, head of global logistics and supply planning at Patagonia.

But e-commerce cannot account for all the lost sales, and Patagonia has had to take other measures. Executives have taken pay cuts, which are expected to extend to other employees. Patagonia is furloughing workers, including 80 percent of its retail staff, for 90 days, though they will keep their health benefits. The company also said it would honor planned paid leave for furloughed employees.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The decision on when to reopen will be based on safety considerations, Ms. Marcario said. She counts it as a point of pride that none of the company’s more than 3,000 employees globally were hospitalized with Covid-19, to its knowledge. She believes the early decision to close is a significant reason, and she wants to the company to be measured about how it returns. Other retailers have introduced steps like employee fever screenings, new signs, masks for workers, limits on the use of fitting rooms, hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass barriers.

Joy Lewis, Patagonia’s head of retailing for North America, has been helping to envision what the experience of working and shopping in Patagonia’s stores will be like. “Squad scheduling” has been put in place for employees who are shipping items from stores, in which teams of four to six people work together consistently, and if one person gets sick, the whole team will be isolated.

Patagonia has been experimenting with a mobile checkout device to avoid lines at registers, she said. Ms. Lewis said shopping by appointment was a possibility to better to control the number of people in a store at any given time.

“You almost have a guide to take you through the store, so you’re only ever exposed to one person and check out with that person,” she said.

Stores are not likely to take the temperature of shoppers, though that could change, she said. And she believes fitting rooms could be used, though clothes might be washed after being tried on.

At the distribution center in Nevada, employees are wearing gloves and face coverings and the facilities are disinfected regularly. It is now operating with around half of its typical staffing.

“In most cases, we’re 30, 40, 50 feet apart for the vast majority of the day,” Mr. Soller said. He estimated that a product might be touched only three times in the course of processing and shipping.

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times
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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The cafe that once served organic food is temporarily closed, and employees have been asked to bring their lunch in individual coolers, so that they do not congregate at refrigerators. “We reduced seating in the cafe,” Mr. Soller said. “We have a lot of outside seating and the weather’s not too bad in Reno.”

Patagonia invested in high-tech temperature scanning technology like the kind used at airports, Mr. Soller said. If someone has an elevated body temperature, they are asked not to work that day. It has also sought to reduce the number of times that people touch door handles and to ensure that people do not use the bathroom at the same time.

“From the moment you walk in the door of our distribution center, and every piece of the day in between, we map the day to minimize touches as much as possible,” he said.

Despite the steep business decline that Patagonia is facing, Ms. Marcario believes the brand will ultimately benefit as the pandemic encourages people, particularly younger generations, to “buy things that last.” The crisis has, in some ways, reminded people “of the value of wild and open spaces and clean air and clean water and if we can channel that to some good, all is not lost,” she said.

Even if Patagonia becomes a smaller company as a result of the pandemic, it will keep working “to protect wild places, to vote climate deniers out of office,” she said.

“We were one of the first to shut down, we might be closer to the last to reopen fully — I don’t really care,” Ms. Marcario said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure that our employees are taken care of in the best way possible and we’ll make those decisions as we come to them.”

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Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

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