With No Law to Guide Them, Israeli Employers Set Their Own COVID Vaccination Policies

'Coming to work was a nightmare.' Employees refusing to get vaccinated report harassment, as Israeli firms attempt to give workforce the jab

'Danger! Here comes a dictatorship.' An anti-vaccination protester in Tel Aviv last week.
'Danger! Here is being built a dictatorship!' An anti-vaccination protester in Tel Aviv last week.Credit: Hadas Parush
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz
Adi Dovrat-Meseritz

D., age 42, has worked from one of the municipal governments in the Sharon area, in central Israel, for almost a decade. She’s regarded as an excellent employee and has enjoyed steady promotions, but since her boss discovered that she hasn’t been vaccinated, D.’s situation has become insufferable, she says0.

“It started when they began making lists of employees who had and hadn’t been vaccinated,” she said. “That by itself was shocking. People are entitled to their privacy, but they demanded an answer. When I told them the truth, that I hadn’t been inoculated, they tried to persuade me in a nice way. Over time it turned into real pressure.”

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At first, she was simply asked why she had opted not to be vaccinated against COVID-19. D. answered she was worried about the long-term side effects. The vaccines were only developed recently and no one can say what these will be, she explained.

“Now, every morning, my boss comes into my office and asks me if I’ve been vaccinated,” D. said. “It’s been difficult. I’ve gone from being a well-liked employee to being a ‘troublemaker.’ In the end, I felt I had no choice but to get vaccinated because I couldn’t continue like this. Coming to work was a nightmare.”

I’ve gone from being a well-liked employee to being a ‘troublemaker.’ In the end, I felt I had no choice but to get vaccinated.

What happened to D. is happening all over Israel. While the government doesn’t require anyone to be vaccinated and Israel has the highest rate of inoculation in the world, more than half the country has yet to get the jab. A survey taken by Panel Views for TheMarker found that 25.8 percent of salaried employees have yet to be vaccinated either by choice or circumstances. Among the self-employed the rate is an even higher 31 percent.

Employers can’t require workers to get vaccinated, but a survey by TheMarker has found that workers aren’t as free to choose as the law permits: At retail chains, as well as companies where employees are less likely to work face-to-face with the public, workers have been told they must either get inoculated or take frequent COVID tests. If they don’t agree, they will be fired.

In many cases, employers reject out of hand applications from job seekers who reveal in their job interviews that they don’t intend to get vaccinated.

A vaccination center in Tel Aviv, yesterday.Credit: Hadas Parush

“I get into loud arguments every day with one of the employees at headquarters who doesn’t want to get vaccinated,” said a senior executive at one of Israel’s big apparel retailers, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This morning he arrived at the office and told me he had finally gotten vaccinated. In retrospect, it was a little unpleasant for me to raise my voice at him, but he really got me angry,” said the executive. “He said he was waiting for herd immunity to develop, in other words, we were all supposed to be his guinea pigs.”

The executive admitted that he had employed what he called an “aggressive” policy vis a vis workers who refuse to be vaccinated. He instructed all his managers to check among their subordinates who hadn’t been inoculated and those who weren’t would have to be tested three times a week. Those who wouldn’t agree to one option or the other would be put on vacation.

“That got them vaccinated,” the executive said. “We had employees who threatened to sue us because it’s not legal to force them to vaccinate, but I told them that would be great for us –  the media will report it, and that will bring us more customers.”

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel takes the view that without explicit legislation an employer cannot demand employees disclose their vaccination status, nor can they be compelled to be vaccinated or have their compensation harmed by refusing to. In contrast, the Manufacturers Association, which represents many of Israel’s biggest companies, has issued an opinion that defends the right of an employer to ask a worker if he or she is vaccinated, or intends to be vaccinated.

An employee who refuses inoculation or frequent testing can be put on vacation or unpaid leave if the job involves frequent contact with other employees or customers. An employee who rejects any reasonable solution can be fired, the association says.

Shahar Turjeman, chairman of the Brill Group.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Shahar Turjeman, chairman of the Brill Group, a retailer whose portfolio includes Nautica, Lee Cooper and Timberland in Israel, complained that the law is unclear and that the government has effectively left employers like himself to ensure the health and safety of their staff. He is also chairman of the association of fashion retailers.

His company insists that employees need to be vaccinated or they must be tested once every 72 hours. If they don’t, we won’t employ them and won’t bring them back from unpaid leave. “Every CEO is acting as he sees fit, there are no guidelines for employers, but that is the association’s approach,” Turjeman said.

He has no time for the criticism that’s been directed at employers like him. “Anyone who preaches to us about civil rights has to ask himself whether he is willing to let a home caretaker who isn’t vaccinated take care of his parents in a nursing home,” he said. “We’re talking about a crisis that happens once every 150 years and people like that are endangering others.”

Many employers have taken a more moderate approach that includes frequent COVID testing and informational campaigns but not firing employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

“We just completed an important management discussion about this issue and in the end we agreed on several steps,” said Avi Buskila, CEO of Sarel, the company that producers medical equipment for government hospitals. The company employs 180 people.

“We face a big dilemma on issues like the law, ethics and how to correctly relay a message, but in the end we want people to return to work. We can’t allow ourselves to let unvaccinated workers with conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated and others,” said Buskila.

Avi Buskila, CEO of Sarel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Even so, Sarel is not forcing employees to be vaccinated. Instead, management is setting a personal example by getting vaccinated. It is also posting lists showing how many employees from different departments have been vaccinated.

In addition, anyone who has not been vaccinated will need to present a COVID test every 48 hours showing a negative result. “The tests will be conducted at [the employee’s] expense and not during work hours. If anyone doesn’t present test results, he will be forced to take a vacation day,” warned Buskila.

“Because I believe that different employees are influenced by different messaging, we’re bringing in an expert who will answer questions and provide explanations aimed at countering fake news. We’ll offer workers [the chance] to get vaccinated on company time,” he said.

Meantime, TheMarker survey suggests that employer efforts are not yielding significant results. The survey of 420 people found that only 3% of salaried employees had chosen to be vaccinated only for the purpose of returning to their jobs. Among the self-employed, the rate was 8%. Another 1.2% of employees said they had gotten the jab because their employer compelled them.

The leading reason why salaried employees chose not to be vaccinated (32%) is simply that they haven’t had time, meaning employers may have to find solutions, such as inviting a mobile vaccination unit to come to the workplace or transporting workers to a vaccination facility during work hours.

Among employees who have been inoculated, 54% said they did it out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. The second biggest reason was the fear of infecting family members. Another incentive should be the benefits of the green pass certifying the holder has been inoculated, but only 7% of respondents cited that as a reason they chose to be jabbed.

In any case, employees are more likely to have been vaccinated than the self-employed by rates of 74% and 6%, respectively.

One employer that has adopted a positive approach to encouraging vaccination is the cybersecurity company Check Point Software Technologies. Management announced that starting April 1, its offices will be green, as in green badge. Only staff that have been vaccinated, recovered from COVID or tested negative be allowed to come in; all others will have to work from home.

In addition, Check Point has already introduced a green bracelet that gives staff the right to use its 20 leisure rooms, including a fitness center, hair and manicure salon and various games rooms. The bracelet also entitles them to use common space and go from floor to floor freely.

The company said the policy had been effective and that 80% of its employees were vaccinated.

Positive spin: A bracelet to be distributed to Check Point employees.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry is preparing legislation that would bar unvaccinated workers, as well as those who can’t show a recent negative COVID test or recovery from the virus, from going to work. The Justice Ministry supports the draft law but the treasury opposes it for economic and human rights reasons.

The legislation’s current terms are draconian, sources said, but they are expected to be moderated to apply only to workplaces where employees deal face-to-face with vulnerable populations, such as schools, health care facilities and retailers.