When the coronavirus outbreak exploded in China in late January, restaurants and karaoke parlors were forced to abruptly shut down. For workers around the country, the halt to business meant that many suddenly found themselves trapped in an uncertain future: Will my company stay afloat? Will I keep my job?

Not every business has been in the same predicament, though. As people who hunker down at home switched to buying groceries online, supermarkets with online stores have become an unlikely winner in the pandemic. And with the boon came a reverse problem: These companies needed more manpower to pack orders and deliver purchases to customers. 

What if the empty restaurants could share their surplus workers with supermarkets? 

Freshippo runs a delivery service in addition to its physical outlets. (Picture: Alibaba)

That’s exactly what happened. Alibaba’s grocery chain Freshippo, also known as Hema, said it hired hundreds of excess workers from restaurants, karaoke bars and ride-hailing firms in Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities. JD.com’s 7Fresh also rolled out its own “employee sharing” program with restaurants.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

Even online employment platforms have jumped in. Jianzhimao (meaning Part-Time Cat), which normally targets college students seeking part-time jobs, introduced an employee sharing program in partnership with the Guangdong branch of the Communist Youth League. It matches struggling businesses with companies that need additional workers.

With the Covid-19 pandemic now spreading rapidly outside China, the US is also seeing a surge in online shopping. On Thursday, Amazon said it’s pausing its Prime Pantry delivery service in the US to fulfill outstanding orders and restock items. This comes just days after the ecommerce giant said it’s hiring an additional 100,000 workers to keep up with demand. It specifically encouraged people who’ve lost their jobs in hospitality, restaurants and travel to apply and work until “things return to normal and their past employer is able to bring them back.”

The new programs in China work differently. They allow workers to officially be shared between companies. Freshippo, for example, says it pays its borrowed workers but they are still officially employees of their other company.

In an announcement last month, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said the original hirer is still responsible for ensuring that shared workers get their wages and social insurance benefits. The borrowing company is responsible for assigning a reasonable workload and hours.

While gig economy workers worldwide are struggling to cope with the lack of guaranteed salaries and fringe benefits under the pandemic, employee sharing is a different concept, according to the ministry. Shared employees aren’t self-employed freelancers, authorities stressed, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for employers to shirk their obligation.

Employee sharing may not work for all positions, though. Skills such as organizing shelves and packaging products might be easier to pick up. But employers say skills like deliveries require more training and experience, whether it’s learning a neighborhood’s routes by heart or knowing how to talk to customers face-to-face.

But even those simple skills could be in high demand during certain times of the year -- like Black Friday, or Singles’ Day in China, when shoppers rush online for deals. 

And there are signs that some companies are hoping to make employee sharing last beyond the pandemic. Freshippo is planning to formalize its program on a digital platform as soon as April, Chinese media reports. Alibaba had no immediate response to our inquiries.