business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

This presidential election cycle ends a week from tomorrow - early voting has been taking place for weeks, with close to 60 million ballots reportedly cast so far - and there apparently have been more than one thousand companies that have agreed to give employees time off to cast their ballots.

The Hill has reported that "more than 1,100 companies have joined the Time To Vote movement, which was co-founded by Patagonia, Levi Strauss and PayPal to encourage employers to provide either several hours or a full day off for workers to vote."  About 400 companies participated in the effort for the 2018 mid-erm elections.

Other companies agreeing to give employees time off to vote this year include Best Buy, Nike, Twitter, Coca-Cola, Cisco, Uber, Gap, JPMorgan Chase, Visa and J Crew.

“We are incredibly pleased with how the movement is building and with the fact that it reaches workers in every state in the country in a variety of industries and in a variety of job functions,” JJ Huggins, spokesman for Patagonia, told The Hill. “We’ve gone out of our way to ensure that it’s nonpartisan.”

Meanwhile, there is an op-ed piece in the Iowa Capital Dispatch suggesting that Hy-Vee's election efforts may have gone too far.

Chairman-CEO-President Randy Edeker reportedly did a video for employees in which he said, "“I never endorse and I try not to ever push a certain candidate or a direction. I always try to speak about Hy-Vee. I have some of the concerns about some of the policies that are being discussed by some of the candidates. Some of the tax policies would be very impactful to Hy-Vee. And the changes in taxes were part of the way we were able to bring a lot of  good things to the employees this past year. Social unrest unfortunately continues to be a problem around the community and we continue to invest in our local groups who we really think can bring unity to our towns.”

The op-ed piece notes that there is nothing illegal about the positions taken in the video, and that, in fact, Hy-Vee's Political Action Committee (PAC) has given money to some Democrats, though it definitely leans Republican.

Where I think the op-ed piece goes too far is when it draws a connection between spiking coronavirus numbers in the Midwest, where Hy-Vee operates, and the perception that current official public policy has led to the spikes … which have been good for Hy-Vee's business.  The piece seems to suggest that Hy-Vee is okay with high pandemic numbers because it can make more money that way.

That strikes me as a particularly heartless reading of Hy-Vee's motives.  I simply cannot believe that anyone would want people to get sick just so sales would go up.

But I do think the op-ed piece does make one legitimate point.  One person's "social unrest" may be another person's quest for social justice.  There may be employees and customers who think that tax policies good for Hy-Vee may not be good for them.

It may be a little disingenuous to say "I never push a candidate or a direction," and then, essentially, do so.  (Just as disingenuous as it may be for Patagonia to say it wants to be nonpartisan in its get-out-the-vote efforts, and then sell shorts that have tags reading, "Vote the assholes out.")

Nothing illegal about it.  And nothing necessarily inappropriate.  It may be that Hy-Vee's political leanings are baked into its broader image, and absolutely nobody is surprised by Edeker's comments, just as nobody was really surprised by the Patagonia tags.

The fact is that there are plenty of companies that are completely upfront about their political leanings … especially this year, when polarization is at epic levels.  (And there are even more companies that are working to get out the vote … I cannot even count how many emails I've been getting from businesses urging me to vote.)

But … companies that do so have to understand that when they take a political stand, they run the risk of alienating a sizeable percentage of their customer base, and that a percentage of that percentage may respond by changing their shopping habits.

Which is okay, too.  Because as much as companies have the right to be upfront about their positions, so do shoppers.