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Startups roll out measures to assist employees amid the second wave of COVID-19 in India

Written by Moulishree Srivastava, Avanish Tiwary Published on     6 mins read

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Startups such as Urban Company, Paytm, and Byju’s have set up relief funds to help employees impacted by COVID-19.

Indonesian ride-hailing decacorn Gojek, which has approximately 900 employees in India, set up a new Slack channel last month to provide its India team with information and support to deal with the second wave of COVID-19 infections that have reached an all-time high of 400,000 reported cases a day.

As the world’s second-most populous country goes through an unprecedented healthcare crisis, hospitals and clinics are not able to deal with the number of COVID-19 patients coming in every day. This has led to an acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and critical life-saving medicines.

Powered by an internal “task force,” Gojek’s new Slack channel acts as a central repository for resources that may help prevent employees from succumbing to COVID-19.

Gojek has also kick-started a no-questions-asked unlimited wellness leave policy as well as monetary assistance of up to INR 200,000 (USD 2,700) per employee. Additionally, it is offering mental health counseling for its Indian staff to cope with loss and stress.

Gojek isn’t the only company that has stepped up for its employees reeling under the physical and mental stress due to the new coronavirus strain that has shattered India’s healthcare system.

Unlike last year, when many Indian startups went on a firing spree to extend their cash runway after COVID-19 hit the country in March, this time, companies are putting together a host of measures for their employees’ well-being.

Putting employees first

Bengaluru-based food delivery giant Swiggy has become one of the first Indian companies to implement a four-day workweek for the month of May to support the physical and mental well-being of its employees. It is to be noted that this doesn’t apply to its delivery fleet. Swiggy has also constituted an emergency support team that is helping employees get access to oxygen cylinders and intensive care units.

The company is reportedly facilitating salary advances, leave encashments, and loans to bear treatment costs for its workforce. Its rival Zomato, on the other hand, said it would provide two years’ full salary to families of employees who succumb to COVID-19. Fintech major Paytm has also started a similar initiative after losing eight employees to the novel coronavirus and pledged to pay their salaries to their families through the current financial year.

Meanwhile, startups are coming up with various methods to provide financial support to their employees during the pandemic.

Urban Company, which recently lost director of engineering Mohit Agrawal to COVID-19, has set up the “Mohit Agrawal Covid Relief Fund” to raise INR 10 million (USD 135,300). “Our goal is to raise upward of one crore rupees, and we will match that amount to offer medical assistance to service partners, their families, and the community,” Raghav Chandra, co-founder of Urban Company, told KrASIA.

Chandra said the company is pulling together all its internal resources to ensure none of its employees have to go through what Agrawal and his family did during this national crisis. “We have formed a task force comprised of senior leaders who are busy with assisting medical help such as remote doctor consultations, hospital admission, procuring medicines or anything else our employees need,” he said.

Similarly, Byju’s founder Byju Raveendran told its 10,000-plus employees last week the company would set up an INR 200 million (USD 2.7 million) fund from which they can apply for reimbursement in case they or their family members are hospitalized due to COVID-19.

Aside from the bigger firms, many early-stage startups are also deploying resources to provide medical support and financial assistance to their employees.

Medtech startup BeatO has procured five 10L oxygen concentrators, which will be sent to employees and their families in case of emergency. Gautam Chopra, BeatO co-founder and CEO, told KrASIA that the startup is also facilitating daily consultations with doctors for its team members and offering salaries in advance to employees in need.

Locus, an AI-enabled logistics services provider, has set up an internal dashboard to keep tabs on various medical resources across major cities in India.

“We’ve urged team members to donate their plasma if they can. Our HR team recently organized a COVID-19 awareness session with a renowned doctor to help team members understand the disease, precautions to be taken, and vaccination measures,” Krishna Khandelwal, chief business officer of Locus, told KrASIA.

Startup

Read this: Startups, corporates step up to fight the second wave of COVID-19 in India

Similarly, work fulfillment platform Awign has set up a communication channel which it calls an “internal war room.” According to Awign’s co-founder Gurpreet Singh, it provides real-time updates to impacted employees about medical support that are frequently verified by team members, maps the severity level case by case, checks and confirms if the affected person has received required help, and gathers city-specific resources to deploy assistance.

Moreover, a few startups working with contract workers have begun to roll out benefits for them. For instance, GigIndia, a B2B gig marketplace for grey-collar gig workers which works with enterprises like Amazon, Tata, Swiggy, and others, said it would issue insurance policies to help all its active gig workers cope with medical expenses up to INR 300,000 (USD 4,060). The startup said it has also launched a campaign to raise INR 500,000 (USD 6,700) and will match the amount to support gig workers who are severely affected.

The mental well-being of employees has emerged as a key theme among the Indian startup community amid the pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 226,188 people in India so far.

Companies such as wealthtech startup Fisdom and edtech company Great Learning have partnered with mental health professionals to ensure the anxiety of dealing with the deadly virus doesn’t take a toll on their employees’ mental health.

Impact on operations

With multiple cities in India under lockdown, the daily operations of companies have been adversely impacted by the second wave of COVID-19. Urban Company, which provides home services such as cleaning, electronic equipment repair, and personal grooming in more than 30 cities, is bracing for the impact of lockdowns in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Bhubaneswar.

“There is a varying effect on the business since a few cities are still not locked down. Typically, our operations have been stalled in cities that are under strict lockdown. By and large, our business bounced back pretty fast in the latter half of 2020,” Chandra of Urban Company said.

To add to these woes, with an increasing number of people falling ill in the second wave, a majority of startups have been forced to run at reduced capacity.

Chandra said 30–40% of its 1,400-strong workforce is showing symptoms of the virus, which has affected its daily operations.

Karthik Gopalan, director of people operations at Great Learning, told KrASIA, “With all this in the backend, we are still ensuring employee engagement does not take a hit. We still have a part of the HR team focusing on organizing some fun activities for employees in smaller groups to help them through these testing times.”

The company has introduced an allowance fund for employees to purchase anything they might need to make working from home more comfortable.

“While there is a slight slowdown in terms of ramping up growth, we firmly believe that employees’ well-being comes first,” said Sucheta Mahapatra, India managing director of Branch, a personal finance app developer, which is offering unlimited leave to its staff to ensure its employees can focus on personal matters.

“The Branch employees have been diligent in ensuring that they execute their responsibilities as a team even in the current situation,” Mahapatra said. “Recently, we have communicated to the team to focus only on urgent office matters and that they should take things slow for the next few weeks given the rising cases of COVID-19 across India.”

“Our workforce is the biggest asset, and their well-being is the utmost priority,” she added.

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