Israeli Business Taking Steps to Cope With Coronavirus Threat

Companies cut back on travel, limit face-to-face meetings and hand out sanitizer, but some worry it’s still not enough

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Prof. Galia Rahav, head of infectious diseases at the Sheba Medical Center.
Prof. Galia Rahav, head of infectious diseases at the Sheba Medical Center, shows one of the rooms there for Israelis in isolation due to the coronavirus.Credit: Heidi Levine/AP

People coming to the offices and production facilities of Intel Israel in recent days are being asked as they enter whether they have traveled overseas recently and to which countries. It’s just one of the ways that the company, which employs 14,000 people in Israel, is coping with the coronavirus.

Intel is not alone: All across the country, businesses, especially big businesses, are establishing procedures to deal with the epidemic, even though only 12 cases have been confirmed in Israel to date.

Companies with international operations have ordered employees to delay all but the most critical business trips. The big accounting firms have canceled all international meetings and conferences. At Facebook, all internal company conferences have been called off and employees told not to travel abroad. Visits by outsiders have been mostly suspended and hand sanitizers have been distributed at offices. Employees who have visited Italy have been told to work from home.

The precautions are due to the continued high levels of uncertainty about the coronavirus and its impact as well as companies’ responsibility for protecting workers. Some are following directives issued by the Israeli Health Ministry and the World Health Organization while others are taking more drastic measures.

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“There’s no question that we’re feeling the pressure locally, mainly due to the directives issued by the Health Ministry ... to carefully consider any trip abroad. That is coming amid the widely-recognized phenomenon of social media messaging, which isn’t always reliable,” said Linor Dloomy, head of the risk management team in Israel for the accounting and consulting firm Deloitte.

At Israel's Teva Pharmaceuticals, the world’s biggest maker of generic drugs, employees have been told to avoid business travel unless necessary, a rule that applies not just to destinations that the Health Ministry has issued warnings on.

Employees who do want to travel to areas designated as risky must get special approval. When they return, they are required to work from home for the following two weeks. Whenever possible, Teva staff have been told to use video conferencing or conference calls rather than face-to-face meetings overseas. A global committee has been set up to oversee its coronavirus policies.

One worker confirmed

At Amdocs, a maker of software and services for communications, media and financial services providers, an employee returning from Italy has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Management informed staff that the employee had not been in the company’s offices or had contact with any employees.

However, Amdocs employees told TheMarker that the company, a multinational with 25,000 employees and customers in over 85 countries, had not banned corporate travel altogether, saying it was premature at this stage to take such steps.

Passengers with masks arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Feb. 25, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Amdocs said in response: “We put the health and safety of our employees, customers and business partners above everything and operate according to the directives issued by the country in which we operate, while keeping communications channels with staff open and up to date.”

Dloomy characterized the coronavirus as an “unfolding event” that required managers to monitor and prepare for.

“Companies and organizations must remember that beyond its being a potential business crisis, it has a personal impact on each and every employee, so you have to provide them a solution,” she said. “It’s important to communicate with employees and create an open dialogue, in which they feel comfortable to cooperate and be consulted.”

Israeli banks, which together employ about 35,000 people, have been readying for the possibility of the coronavirus epidemic reaching the country in big numbers. Bank Hapoalim says its policy is to adhere to Health Ministry directives while Bank Leumi and Israel Discount Bank have issued special instructions to staff.

“Like other global financial institutions designated as critical for the continuation of business, we have decided to take several steps beyond what’s been ordered by the Health Ministry,” Leumi management told employees in a letter.

About 40 Leumi employees are now under quarantine for fear they may have been infected.

Among other things, meetings of more than five people at Leumi have been banned. Meetings larger than that have to be conducted by conference call or video. Only business travel that is absolutely necessary is being approved. Employees who plan to travel abroad or have just returned must notify management and the personnel department.

In addition, Leumi employees flying abroad starting March 1 from anywhere in the world have been asked not to work for two weeks after they return in the office if they work in a building that has large public spaces. Office cleaning has been stepped up and sanitizers have been distributed to staff.

At Discount Bank, management has told employees in critical units, such as clearance and those dealing in cash, to rotate their work hours.

State-owned Israel Electric Corporation, one of Israel’s biggest employers, has been preparing for the possibility that the coronavirus will spread to large numbers of people in Israel. The utility has formed a special committee to implement Health Ministry directives and additional steps if the situation grows worse.

Among other things, the panel is examining how IEC would staff power stations, if large numbers of its employees are quarantined, to ensure reliable power to homes and businesses. It is also looking into how it would cope if it were forced to suspend visits to company offices.

IEC is considering having workers work longer shifts to reduce the amount of time they spend traveling to and from work and among company sites.

Masks for conductors

Israel Railways has begun distributing surgical masks to employees who come into contact with passengers and are asking staffers to use sanitizer gel for their hands. The railways say employees are not being asked to wear the masks yet, but to have them ready in case the situation changes or they encounter a passenger with coronavirus symptoms, such as fever and coughing.

An Israel Railways train.Credit: Moshe Gilad

“We have to take into account that every organization, in Israel and the world, and also the railways, has a limited supply of masks, so we’re asking people to use them thoughtfully, to consult with relevant managers before using them and to use them more than once,” managers said in a letter sent to employees.

Unlike Israel Railways, bus companies have not issued any instructions. The National Authority for Public Transportation claims that it will operate according to Health Ministry directives and that to date it hasn’t received any.

Many of Israel’s dock workers have expressed fear over the last month because so many ships from the Far East have docked. At Haifa Port, management said in a letter to workers it was preparing for the coronavirus risk by distributing masks, suits and gloves to be worn by people aboard ships at the port. Use of the protective gear will be a condition for being allowed to dock.

Haifa PortCredit: Rami Shllush

Management said it has informed the Health Ministry that it planned to take the temperatures of ships’ crews arriving in Israel and to quarantine those who showed symptoms.

The port said it had already begun such procedures, but workers said they were concerned about their safety and that management had not done enough yet to ensure it. At Ashdod Port, management said it was following Health Ministry directives on protective gear when coming into contact with people from high-risk countries.

NTA, the company building the Tel Aviv Light Railway, has a special challenge because it relies on Chinese workers constructing large parts of the system. NTA said it was adhering to Health Ministry directives on hygiene and preventing contagion.

Because the epidemic is expected to continue and it needs additional workers to continue construction, the Transportation Ministry is working with Chinese contractors to arrange quarantine procedures for new workers arriving in Israel. The quarantine options are for new workers to be hosted by a third party, in China or in Israel.

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