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Forced to fly? Covid-19 transformed business trips from a dream into a nightmare

Israeli tech companies are being accused of threatening to lay off employees who refused to travel due to health fears

Sophie Shulman 18:2114.09.20
Israeli big data startup SQream’s management summoned its employees in Tel Aviv for a meeting several weeks ago to discuss their expectations for the future. During the meeting, a vice president at the company asked the employees: "who of you won't agree to fly out to customers in order to install our systems?" Almost everyone raised their hands, prompting the VP to say: "I'm sorry but we are going to have to bid farewell to anyone who refuses and recruit new employees to replace them because otherwise the company won't make money." Following such a clear threat, many of the employees relented and agreed to travel overseas.

 

SQream is far from the only company that is dealing with problematic, and often surprising, repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. An employee at Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group told Calcalist under the condition of anonymity that he initially refused to travel abroad on a business trip as he has small kids and didn't want to have to spend two weeks in quarantine upon his return. The employee was ultimately left with little choice but to make the trip to the client after NSO provided him with an apartment for the self-isolation period.

 

An unnamed startup in the drone sector also encountered a similar issue as it couldn't install its systems remotely and had to send a technician abroad. After looking into the matter and discussing it with the employees, the company came up with a unique program for employees traveling abroad. According to the program, which aims to reduce air travel as much as possible, the company will preferably aim to send employees without children for a period of around a month after which they will self-quarantine for two weeks and then receive two more weeks of paid vacation before going abroad once more.

Yael Dolev (from right), Avihay Michaely and Eynat Guez. Photo: Nimrod Glickman and Menahem Oz Yael Dolev (from right), Avihay Michaely and Eynat Guez. Photo: Nimrod Glickman and Menahem Oz

 

"For some companies this problem adds up to tens of millions of dollars," noted Avihay Michaeli, a business executive and startups mentor. "Their representative didn't complete the installation of the system and with many countries like Israel not recognizing Covid-19 as a force majeure, clients threatened to call off deals. That left companies in Israel with no option but to ensure their teams completed the installations and received the payment."

 

According to Eynat Guez, co-founder and CEO of Papaya Global, the move to online working relationships has further expanded cultural gaps. "Zoom meetings accentuate for example the need for an Italian employee who knows the language and culture if you need to work opposite an Italian client, and that is also the case in the rest of the countries," she told Calcalist. "That is why we are seeing companies looking to recruit local employees in the markets they target."

 

The issue of flying abroad also has ramifications for employer-employee relationships. On the one hand, an employee has the right to protect their health, and the fear from having to self-isolate is also understandable. But on the other hand, the company is paying them to do a job.

 

"If a job by definition requires the employee to work abroad from Sunday to Thursday and suddenly the employee is no longer willing to do so, that justifies being fired," explained Yael Dolev, the head of GKH's Labor Law practice. "On the other hand, if this is a job that can be done remotely then the employer isn't acting in good faith. The question is how unreasonable is the demand to fly abroad?"

 

Ami Gal, CEO of SQream, said he is unaware of the aforementioned meeting in which employees were asked to vote on their willingness to fly abroad. He admitted that there are some employees who are concerned about traveling overseas, but that there are also other employees who volunteered to do so. "This is a dilemma. But no one is forcing anyone to fly abroad. We turned the employees who volunteered into heroes and also gave them a bonus," he said.

 

SQream said in response to the claims: "Several weeks ago the company held a meeting with a group of employees who tend to clients abroad regarding their work during the Covid-19 pandemic. This was done in light of the fact that the coronavirus restrictions aren't going away any time soon and there is a need to hold an open discussion and raise the challenge that we are facing in order to retain all of the companies employees, and especially those whose job includes trips to clients across the globe, and of course to continue the company's business activity in the near and distant future. At the same time, it was important for the company's management to place an emphasis on guaranteeing the health of the employees, especially those whose job requires them to visit clients abroad. At no stage were employees told that whoever refuses to fly abroad will be fired. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the employees and management have worked to continue the activity and retain as many clients as possible, including by flying overseas. Since the start of the pandemic, there were a number of employees who volunteered to fly to clients in order to complete business projects and they were specially compensated for that. These employees also received organizational recognition and praise. The joint effort bore fruit, with the company retaining its entire workforce and clientele. In the last meeting the procedures for essential flights abroad were set and the joint effort of the employees and management will continue to maintain the company's achievements without risking the employees."

 

NSO wrote in response to the claim that an employee was forced to fly abroad after initially refusing to do so: "We are continuing our diverse and vigorous business activity, including flying to any required destination in the world, while of course safeguarding the health of our employees and meeting all the local and global restrictions. We are proud of the company's employees who have displayed notable responsibility and dedication and have flown over recent months to any destination in which the company has business interests.

 

"Just as in normal times, and even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic, we take into consideration the personal, medical and family situation of the employees and adjust the timing of their flights to their needs and requests. There has never been an instance in which the company asked employees to fly abroad against their will. On the contrary, the company only sends overseas employees who display an interest and willingness to do so. As for the self-isolation period, the company provides its employees with alternative housing solutions or hotel stays, if necessary, at its expense. We are unaware of any case in which an employee asked not to fly abroad and should there be one, the company will find an alternative while being completely considerate, the way it has been until now," NSO Group added.