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The Empty Chair

Arbitrary Layoffs during COVID-19 

A blog entry by: Nesma El Sehmawy 

On December 31, 2019, a patient in Wuhan, China was reported to the World Health Organization with symptoms of pneumonia, but the cause was unknown. On January 10, 2020, WHO confirmed that pneumonia cases that have been found in Wuhan, China were actually symptoms of the novel Corona virus. On January 13th, the first confirmed Corona virus outside China was confirmed in Thailand. This is the start of the end of the world, as we know it on economic, professional, and sociological level.

Ever since the Coronavirus started spreading across the globe, people have been panicking of the overwhelmingly enormous flow of information that has been pouring down on them. So many people started talking about how severe the symptoms are, others talked about how simple this virus is. In Egypt, the first confirmed case of Coronavirus was reported on February 14, 2020. 

By that time, I was in Uganda finishing my internship there and I was nonchalant to the idea of this new virus to the point that I was sure it will be contained very soon; unfortunately, I was far from right. By the time I came back to Egypt beginning of March, I started to learn more about the virus and its consequences; I was always extremely careful not to act reckless since I cannot afford infecting my family, or anyone for that matter. One of the aspects I learned about how the virus would change my life was through finding work. 

I thought I would be able to find work easily since by now I have a master’s degree and an international experience, yet the virus’s outbreak made it hard for me to find work easily and be able to get the exposure I needed to find work. I spent around 4 months relentlessly reaching out to recruiters and applying for jobs for the hope to be contacted by one of the companies I applied for. If the market was competitive to be able to find a decent job, Coronavirus made it even more competitive to work it through. Sadly, that was not the worst part about companies shutting down the hiring process; layoffs have been a more tragic repercussion of the pandemic’s outbreak, especially in a fragile economy in an underdeveloped country like Egypt. 

E.A. was one of the people who lost their jobs due to the Coronavirus outbreak. He worked as an Experiential Learning Expert in the training and development field. He specialized in the delivery and design part. “I was laid off at the end of April 2020. My manager "CEO" called me and told me about the situation they are having and especially my kind of role in the company is about having team-building events and doing physical activities and that it will not work for a while.” 

E.A. did not even have a notice period, his layoff decision was effective immediately, but he was given a two-month salary as a compensation. In that case, compensation did not make sense to me in that situation now since money cannot really fix the anxiety and the unknown future E.A. had to face because of a vicious cycle of events that is no fault of his own. 

However, he keeps a positive attitude towards being laid off; “I was actually kind of relieved because I have the time to rethink and see what to do next in my career as there is no need to rush anything these days because everything is closed.”  

R.G., a Talent and Organization Development Manager at a Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) company operating in Egypt, has obtained a certificate in career coaching, and she has been helping those who were laid off to find jobs amidst the pandemic’s outbreak. 

She believes the layoffs was a tragic consequence of COVID-19. She mentioned some of the reasons she thinks layoffs took place; first of all, sales decreased for companies that specialize in luxurious products; they were no longer bought as much as before. People tend to buy the essentials only for the time being. Second, FMCG goods are companies that produce quick-to-be-sold goods at a relatively low cost such as companies selling processed milk products, chocolates or soft drinks. FMCG companies used to create massive summer campaigns worth millions for Below the Line advertising activities, in which products are promoted on a personal level with the consumer in a more interactive manner; thus, seasonal hires such as ushers and salespeople are no longer hired. Activation companies, which are responsible for creating events, are no longer doing work since all events were stopped to avoid social congestion. 

Still, industries such as entertainment and technology have peaked since the pandemic’s outbreak. Since virtually all people are staying at home for the most part, people have the choice to buy everything online and with one click. Companies producing snack products also have an active market since COVID-19 took place. In addition, any company that has to do with cleaning products, shower gels, and shampoos have been sought furiously from the market. 

R.G. made sure to confirm that this is what she encountered and perceived as the main work landscape ever since the Coronavirus swept Egypt specifically. 

From the research done on the matter, one can see that companies stood desperate in the face of COVID-19 oblivious of what to do but to either decreasing the number of working hours which decrease salaries, or just deducting employees’ salaries in half, not distributing profit share which put employees in a quite a pickle where they prefer to stay without getting paid instead of being unemployed, withholding annual leaves, and/or working from home. 

With that, one can assume that the landscape of work would not be the same after the end of the pandemic. The question is; would it become better or worse, especially for those who were laid off?

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