Quarantine Questions: A Guide for the Confined

Israel's health authorities have ordered tens of thousands to stay home, with criminal penalties for not respecting the directive - but in many cases the rules about compensation are unclear

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Men waiting in Ben Gurion International Airport's arrivals hall, Israel, March 5, 2020.
Men waiting in Ben Gurion International Airport's arrivals hall, Israel, March 5, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

More and more Israelis face a lengthy time home alone after the Health Ministry issued a directive Wednesday extending quarantine orders to include people returning from travel to Austria, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland.

The first such directive, issued on February 27, instructed Israeli citizens returning from travel to China – including Hong Kong and Macau – Singapore, South Korea and Thailand to self-quarantine for 14 days after their arrival.

The orders for the European states apply retroactively to people who returned from these countries in the previous 14 days.

In addition, many Israelis have been instructed to quarantine themselves because they were known to have been in the proximity of someone infected with the new coronavirus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaacov Litzman give a briefing on measures taken by Israel to palliate to the novel coronavirus, Jerusalem, March 4, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

These include people who attended a soccer game at Jaffa’s Bloomfield Stadium on February 24 and sat near a boy who later tested positive for the virus, or shopped at branch of the Red Pirate toy store chain in Or Yehuda where he worked. People who came into contact with an American woman who visited Israel last month and was diagnosed with the virus after returning to the U.S. were also told to self-quarantine.

The Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority estimated Thursday that 60,000-70,000 people were in quarantine.

What does someone told to go into quarantine do? The first thing, says Rachel Harari-Lifshits, a partner in the Tel Aviv law firm Amit, Pollak, Matalon & Company and head of its labor and employment practice department, is to do what you’re told. Anyone who is supposed to quarantine themselves according to Health Ministry directives and doesn’t has committed a criminal offense, she told TheMarker.

People going into quarantine must provide their employer with proof that they were in a country or place on the Health Ministry list, said Harari-Lifshits. You have to do this by formal notification, with your name, ID number and the dates of your quarantine, not just by calling your boss and telling him or her the bad news.

The time off for quarantine comes out of an employee’s sick days. The Health Ministry will issue a certificate for that and the employers has no right to demand additional confirmation. Employers are barred from firing a worker who is in quarantine by official order.

Harari-Lifshits said she had raised the issue in a special discussion called by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in response ordered the Finance Ministry to present a plan.

“But the treasury operates by its own rules, and the law right now doesn’t allow workers in quarantine to get paid their normal salary.”

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

Some businesses have taken their own measures to limit the spread of the virus among their staff members. In that case, Harari-Lifshits said, employees and management can arrange for working from home or for an employee to use vacation days. But such arrangements can only be made by mutual agreement; otherwise, the employer has to carry the cost, she stressed.

Many businesses – and, as of Thursday, Israel’s civil service – have banned business travel for employees. In other cases they have restricted it to essential travel. In the case of the civil service, scheduled trips have been canceled.

The travel ban is being enforced most severely for the 150,000 employees of the health care system. They have been banned from traveling overseas altogether, even for a vacation for which they have already paid.

Officials fear that a single health care worker with the virus could single-handedly set off a massive epidemic. Moreover, the system needs to remain fully staffed in the event of an escalation in the spread of the disease.

Because they are subject to a government directive, health care workers are in a different category from other Israelis who want to back out of vacations abroad for fear of contracting the virus. Nevertheless, the Finance Ministry hasn’t decided whether to reimburse them for canceled trips.

Israeli polling station staff count votes cast by people in coronavirus isolation, Shoham, Israel, March 3, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Like every other kind of government aid that may or may not be granted in connection with the virus, the treasury says it will only decide about compensation after the epidemic has subsided. Harari-Lifshits said that this policy will create a lot of problems.

“Putting thousands of people into quarantine, without making decisions about who is paying for it, is a recipe for disarray,” she said. “On the one hand, the government is telling citizens to go into isolation and, on the other, telling them it’s at their expense. When this is the case, employees who do not have enough sick days may come to work and hide the fact that they are supposed to be in quarantine.”

The other side of the question about business travel is whether an employer can insist that an employee make a business trip. For countries that are on the Health Ministry’s travel-warning list, which would mean they would have to go into quarantine on their return, the answer is no.

Many bigger companies have formed teams to set rules for dealing with the coronavirus, for instance requiring workers to report what destinations they have flown to abroad so they can know in advance the risks to their staffs if or when the Health Ministry adds more countries to its quarantine list.

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