It has been one full year since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped New Jersey and the nation, radically changing lives and altering the landscape of the companies and nonprofits that call the Garden State home. The impact is still being measured. The fallout is still being felt. And corporations quickly responded not only to the pandemic, but to other powerful issues including social unrest and climate change. New Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs were forged, and existing ones expanded.
No sector has been more vital than the pharmaceutical industry which, while dealing with all the pressures and changes facing every type of business, was also engaged in a literal life-or-death race to respond to COVID-19.
In just a year, that incredible response has yielded not one, not two, but now three vaccines that are being administered to millions of the most vulnerable among us.
New Jersey plays an outsized role in the pharmaceutical industry, as home to 14 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies, earning the nickname “The Medicine Chest of the World.”
The state Labor Department says in 2019, an average of 76,430 people were employed in the Life Sciences sector, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology / R&D, and medical device manufacturing. Payroll totaled more than $12.4 billion.
We know there was tremendous disruption created by the pandemic and other simultaneous crises. We also know it’s important to find valuable lessons as we move forward.
In that spirit, The Munshine Group conducted a series of interviews with corporate leaders, looking at how they responded to the events of 2020, and what we can all learn about CSR and improving our world in the months and years ahead.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing insights from various industries, but in this anniversary month of the pandemic here in the United States, we are starting with the pharmaceutical sector, which has made extraordinary strides and delivered hope to us all.
In late 2020 and early this year, The Munshine Group spoke with leaders at five key pharmaceutical companies. The goal was to discover how corporate CSR practices changed in the face of so many challenges.
Our conversations with the pharmaceutical industry leaders covered five strategic CSR categories: employee engagement and well-being; community engagement; the environment; supply chain; and business ethics. Executives also offered their advice to nonprofit organizations seeking financial and other corporate support.
As with companies of every size and across every sector, pharmaceutical corporations need and want to do good – and do well. Making a positive difference in society is a core part of strengthening and growing businesses, and corporate citizenship is crucial to enhancing public image, attracting customers and investors, and hiring and retaining the best talent.
Among all 28 businesses we interviewed, including the pharmaceutical companies, 80% view their CSR strategy as having room for improvement, and 85% shifted their employee engagement strategies due to the events of 2020.
When it comes to employee engagement and well-being, pharmaceutical companies shifted to remote work where possible, while protecting essential workers on the front lines. At the same time, they were actively addressing issues of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as climate change and their environmental impact. The companies’ actions were extensive and varied, but all aimed to improve the lives of their employees and strengthen the broader community. Highlights include:
- “Bridge to Employment Mentorship” works to increase the pool of qualified candidates by engaging with disadvantaged and at-risk populations
- Gave medically-trained clinicians the opportunity to support pop-up medical tents and hospitals, granting them paid leave for up to six months
- Converted much of the Listerine product supply chain to produce hand sanitizer
- Increased employee benefits and flexibility, and furloughed workers rather than laying them off where possible
- Increased charitable giving
- Delivered care packages to the U.S. west coast, ravaged by wildfires
- Similar to J&J, gave medically-trained clinicians the opportunity to support pop-up medical tents and hospitals
- Reinforced work in health equity being done through the Merck Foundation, as well as strengthened focus on specific diseases
- Added $36 million to previously-allotted spending to address inequities including COVID-related health disparities
- Merck’s CEO is co-chairing a multi-corporate initiative called “OneTen” to create one million jobs for Black Americans in the next decade (note: in February 2021, Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, a leading Black American business leader, announced his retirement plans)
- Established data-driven guidelines and metrics to bring people of color into leadership positions by 2025
- Head of Global Immunology developed the “Trusted Messenger Program” in partnership with the Allergy and Asthma Network to pilot a program to reach Black people living in underserved neighborhoods in Atlanta, with more than 1,000 people screened for COVID-19 and comorbidities, medications prescribed, and an educational program developed, with a goal of making the program national
- As the largest employer in its area of eastern Pennsylvania, helped establish a COVID-19 relief fund for local businesses
- Quickly adopted a budget for making donations through corporate giving, direct grants and a 2-for-1 matching program for employees’ COVID-related donations
- Donated $11 million to 56 nonprofit organizations focused on advancing health equity in the U.S. The organizations will develop programs to improve access to high-quality care, increase awareness and health education in diverse and underserved communities, and improve diversity in clinical research (note: announced in February 2021, shortly after our conversation)
The highlights from these five companies are by no means exhaustive, but represent what they and others in the pharmaceutical industry are doing to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. In addition, these companies are representative of efforts across various sectors of corporate America to make Corporate Social Responsibility central to who they are and what they do.
It should be noted that on March 2nd, 2021, a history-making partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson was announced, with Merck to help J&J make its just-approved COVID-19 vaccine, turning traditional competitors into collaborators to ramp up production for the greater good.
The breathtaking speed of the COVID-19 vaccine development and rollout has the potential to profoundly impact research and treatments for other diseases, including cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, in the years to come. The fact that millions of Americans have been vaccinated a year after the pandemic upended the world is a tribute to innovation, partnerships, and the desire to make that world a better place.