As Mass Coronavirus Quarantine Looms, Working From Home Seen as Way to Keep Economy Afloat

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Israeli Professor Galia Rahavm, head of infectious diseases, is seen in one of the rooms where returning Israelis will stay under observation and isolation at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, Israel, February 19, 2020
Israeli Professor Galia Rahavm, head of infectious diseases, is seen in one of the rooms where returning Israelis will stay under observation and isolation at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel HasCredit: POOL New/ REUTERS
sivan-klingbail
Sivan Klingbail

As more and more Israelis are being urged or ordered into quarantine, policy makers, executives and exporters are counting on work at home to prevent the economy from coming to a standstill.

As of Sunday, only 39 Israelis have so far tested positive for the coronavirus, known as COVID-19; thousands have been placed in isolation. However, Italy went from a handful of cases to a decision on Sunday to lock down much of the country’s north, home to about a quarter of the country’s 60 million people.

With the risk of a mass quarantine at short notice staring them in the face, Israel’s government and many private sector companies are making plans for the possibility that it will become a mass phenomenon by enabling people to work at home.

On Sunday, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called on employers to allow employees to work from home to minimize the damage to Israel’s economy from the coronavirus.

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“The Finance Ministry is holding ongoing situation assessments together with the prime minister, the Health Ministry and the National Security Council, and we’ll respond on a case-by-case basis,” Kahlon said, adding, “Israel’s economy is strong and stable.”

Even before Kahlon spoke, many private sector companies in Israel began preparing for the possibility of mass quarantine that forces hundreds of thousands to stay at home and work from there.

That would mark a big change from the current situation, where according to a survey conducted by the government only about 4% of Israelis work from home under ordinary circumstances. The average for countries in the European Union is 5% and in the Netherlands it reaches close to 14%.

The upside

Dr. Adi Levy, director of science at the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Science, said there would be an economic upside to so many people working from home.

The Knesset Research and Information Center estimates that the lost time and energy resources due to road congestion, mainly from people commuting to and from work, amounted to 35 billion shekels ($10 billion) last year and will more than double to 74 billion by 2030 if nothing changes.

A joint report by the society and the environment and transportation ministries had already recommended increased work from home as one way to solve the problem. But Levi cautioned that there were a lot of jobs that had to be done in the workplace.

“In a warehouse, where not all the work is being performed by robots, or where physical labor requires the worker present at the workplace or jobs that serve a public coming to a specific place, there’s no work-at-home solution,” he said.

A very rough estimate based on data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 40% of Israeli workers could work from home, most of them people in jobs requiring a college degree or involving management. It assumes that teachers, for example, can continue teaching from home.

Against that, about 48% of employed Israelis would have a difficult time working from home, including sales and service workers, farm workers, those employed in manufacturing and construction, for instance.

At Intel Israel, a major private sector employer, most of its 11,700 workforce have been able to work from home for years. However, the 4,400 production workers at its chip fabrication facilities in Kiryat Gat don’t have that option.

Levi said the challenge will be to reduce the damage to the economy if the virus puts large number of people in quarantine.

But even in the high-tech sector, where work at home has been widely practiced for years, executives warned that it was no panacea. “Sales meetings can’t be done by video calls,” said a senior industry executive, expressing worry that a quarantine could make itself felt most painfully in fewer sales orders.

“High-tech is also vulnerable to [global] recession, perhaps even more so than other sectors, since these are global companies,” he added.

In the public sector, a committee of treasury and Civil Service Commission officials began working last week on plans for the work-at-home initiative.

The panel is now gathering information on which employees need to be at their jobs at all times, in particular, those having a direct hand in the government’s efforts to contain the epidemic and can work from home. Ministries are also being asked to provide lists of the most essential staffers, in case Israel goes into mass quarantine.

“At this stage, the directive only deals with examining the options for expanding work at home in the event of a mass quarantine,” said one official.

The work-at-home plan will only apply to government employees who don’t need to be a physical contact with the public. Workers who need access to secure and sensitive data will also be excluded, as will those who don’t have online connections or a PC capable of handling the kind of work they do.

Information technology chiefs in the ministries are being quizzed on their ability to handle traffic loads from employees working from home. Although the ability to work online from home is theoretically simple, it has not been tested on a mass basis.

Some state-owned companies have already conducted trial runs. At Israel Electric Corporation, which already counts a few score employees in quarantine, has been working with Citrix Systems to facilitate video conferencing by employees’ laptops at home. It has been holding meetings with some participants attending in person and other by video conferencing.

At the state-owned water company Mekorot, 500 of the company’s 1,700-strong headquarters staff have been set up to work from home, if needed.

Legal obstacles

Beyond the technical challenges, the government’s work-at-home program faces some legal and contractual ones as well. For now, Israelis in quarantine are either designated as sick or at risk of illness. Sick employees are not supposed to be working, including working from home – a principle that the Histadrut labor federation is expected to stand on.

Thus, government officials are at pains to define the situation of a mass quarantine as a national emergency in the form of a “national quarantine event” where workers are told to stay at home to prevent a public health crisis.

Still, Levi said many workers may find they are performing more efficiently and don’t mind not being at the office. He pointed to a friend of his who works for an apparel company and returned from Milan a week ago and is now in quarantine for two weeks.

She told him that 80% of her job involves dealing with foreign customers with whom she communicates online and by telephone. The challenge is the other 20% of her work, which involves supervising deliveries, for example, that requires her to be physically present at her workplace.

But, Levi said, his friend was happily at work at the end of last week – two days into her quarantine. She reported working so hard she had all but forgotten that she was in isolation. If she hadn’t, she adds, she would be going stir crazy.

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