In Israel, not just life hangs in the balance—work does, too

Life put on hold.
Life put on hold.
Image: Reuters/Amir Cohen
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When the first siren in my city in Israel blared a little after 9pm on a Saturday night, I grabbed two of my children out of their beds while my husband picked up the other two, one under each arm. We sat in the bomb shelter in our apartment, a concrete-reinforced room that is legally mandated for all Israeli residential buildings constructed since 1991. I read a children’s book. I kept reading out loud, another book and then another, as my husband cleared out the room and dragged in mattresses, and as a second siren went off just as they got settled down again.

But there was still the matter of the next day, which would begin at 6am with our third siren in nine hours.

Until a week and a half ago, Modi’in, located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, had been pretty unaffected by the rockets raining down on the rest of the country. But once we made it onto Hamas’ map, I had no idea if we would continue to be targeted or would somehow slip out of sight again. I wasn’t worried about my three oldest children being at camp or day care; they have the same kind of built-in bomb shelter we have in our apartment. But I was worried about a rocket attack en route to and from those safe spaces.

I just barely, and only sort of, trust that the adult bus monitor who rides the minibus with Rimonit, my oldest child at age six-and-three-quarters, will let me know if the minibus is going to be late. How could I possibly trust her to unload all the children off the minibus in case of a siren and direct them to lie down safely on the side of the road and cover their heads, in keeping with Home Front Command instructions? I discussed it with my husband and we agreed that she would stay home the next day. While we were at it, we kept our second daughter home too, along with the 1-year-old. We sent in the 3-year-old, since her day care is around the corner and we would be able to run into any of the buildings on the way if we had to.

There was no question about who would be with the kids: Me.

I usually go into the Tel Aviv office of Haaretz, the newspaper where I work, twice a week, and I would have been home that day in any case. It was a no-brainer. I couldn’t help wondering, though: What if I had to be at work that day and didn’t have a babysitter to be with the kids in my place? Would I have said I couldn’t come in? Or would I have decided that I was being paranoid, that the odds of a rocket strike at precisely the wrong time were pretty low, that life must go on, that I should send them all to their various child-care providers anyway and just hope for the best?

These are the kinds of questions that we’re adding to our work-life balance these days. One of the less bloody casualties of the current round of Israel-Gaza fighting is the economy: the businesses that suffer when ongoing rocket fire, and the accompanying fear and caution it instills, keeps both workers and consumers away. As US Secretary of State John Kerry tries his hand at a cease-fire to which both Israel and Hamas will agree, and as the body count continues to rise, Israeli businesses try to figure out how to pick up the pieces.

About five minutes after workers at Michsaf, an Israeli cutlery and housewares manufacturer located across the border from the Gaza Strip, walked out of one of the company’s warehouses last week, a siren warned of an incoming rocket. There was an explosion—quite close, though that in itself was nothing new for the border kibbutz where the company is located—and when it was relatively safe to head outside, the damage was discovered: the warehouse, and the thousands of pots and pans it contained, had been smashed to bits.

Galit Abergel, who is in charge of purchasing and imports for the company, was at work that day, huddling in a hallway next to her office because she wouldn’t have been able to reach a shelter in the 15 seconds she had from the siren’s first wail. About half the company’s 45 employees had not been coming into work since intensive rocket fire—the count is now at more than 1,600 rockets fired—began about two weeks ago. Not long after the warehouse took a direct hit, Abergel, who is 40, informed her boss that she wouldn’t be coming in either for a while.

“I took vacation because I’m scared to go to work,” says Abergel, who was already on leave when Hamas militants were caught this week attempting to enter Kibbutz Nir Am, where the company is headquartered, through an underground tunnel from Gaza. “You’re always trying to figure out what you’ll do—what if I go to the bathroom and just then there’s a siren? You’re worried about making a cup of coffee. You’re always anxious, always worried, always scared.”

On Kibbutz Nir Am, Abergel’s boss, Michsaf CEO Tamir Simchi, has been letting his workers take time off if they ask for it, even though he expects his turnover for this year to go down at least 20%. “People are having a hard time just getting to work, functioning normally,” says Simchi. “You know, doing business is hard. But doing business in an emergency situation is impossible, that’s all. Simply impossible.”

Israeli factories have sustained a combined total of about 445 million shekels ($130 million) in financial damage during the fighting, with 40% caused to southern plants like Michsaf and the dairy company Tara, though that region accounts for just 20% of factory workers, the Israel Manufacturers Association said early this week. Agriculture has also been affected, with the Israel Fruit Growers Association claiming 20 million shekels in damages.

About 25,000 foreign laborers, many from Thailand, work in the Israeli agriculture industry, meaning that they are often in fields where they typically have little to no protection from rockets. “Over the last few weeks, every day there have been sirens a few times a day, and all we could do was lie down on the ground and hope it wouldn’t fall on us,” a Thai farm laborer who works in the fields of Tekuma, about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Gaza, told Kav LaOved-Worker’s Hotline, an advocacy group that aims to protect the rights of disadvantaged workers in Israel.

Some farmers have bought portable bomb shelters and placed them near their greenhouses for the field workers, but they haven’t all done so—and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system does not attempt to intercept any of the rockets headed for open areas, a designation that includes farmland.

The Israeli government agreed this week to provide some compensation for financial damage to businesses located up to 40 kilometers from the Gaza border, though no final decisions on exact amounts are expected to be made for months. Large and small businesses alike are still tallying up their increasing losses.

Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel has had a law on the books protecting workers from losing their jobs if they cannot go to work during an “emergency situation.” The problem is that what qualifies as an emergency situation, and who qualifies as being in it, will be determined retroactively, leaving employers and employees uncertain about what happens if workers don’t come in—as often happens when parents can’t leave their children at home alone, especially now that many nursery schools and summer camps have been shut down for the duration.

As a part-time self-employed translator and musician whose in-home bomb shelter in Be’er Sheva usually serves as her music studio, Yael David, 35, doesn’t expect to get compensated for turning down translation work to focus on her 9-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son who have found themselves with nothing much to do. Others—like a mother of three from a town close to the Gaza border who told her boss she wouldn’t be back until the situation settled down, packed three days’ worth of clothes for her kids and took off for the relatively quiet north of the country—have no idea whether or not they’ll have an income this month.

The law appears to protect at least some workers from being fired for not showing up at work, but it certainly “doesn’t determine whether they will get paid or who will pay them,” the company or the government, says Michal Tadjer, a lawyer for Kav LaOved. At the least, Tadjer says before a siren interrupts her mid-sentence, she expects the government to announce that residents who live within 40 kilometers of Gaza—as well as parents whose children were supposed to be in a day care or camp that the Home Front Command ordered shut down—will be protected from dismissal over their absence during the fighting.

The past may be some guide. After the Second Lebanon War and the previous two Israeli operations in Gaza, in 2008 and 2012, the government ordered certain companies to pay their employees as though they had worked during those conflicts, and the government then gave those employers a tax refund, says Israel’s Economy Ministry.

While waiting for possible compensation to come through, several food service providers in the south are harnessing patriotism to help cover some of their losses, by taking orders from people in other parts of the country who want to show support for businesses in the south. The Eichut Mehadrin bakery in the heavily rocket-battered city of Sderot has lost about half its usual customers in the past two weeks, including caterers and other businesses as well as walk-ins—but it did at least sell 400 challahs last week to new, if temporary, customers, says bakery owner Amos Huri.

Huri says his income has dropped by at least 40% over the past two weeks, and just 13 of his 22 employees have been coming to work. Even when they do arrive, they don’t always want to take on risky tasks like driving to towns near the Gaza border to deliver supplies, which Huri has done himself on days the driver refuses. “It’s not so bad that there are fewer workers,” says Huri, “because there isn’t a lot of work.”

The fighting has also caused significant losses to businesses that are relatively far from the Gaza border. Adam Sela’s Challenging Experience, a wilderness tour company with two desert bases, one 70 kilometers south of Gaza and one 90 kilometers away, has had a whopping 90% cancellation rate from groups and families that have decided not to hike, rappel or camp in the exposed outdoors, or have canceled their trip to Israel altogether. “When people cancel their trips to the region, it’s got nothing to do with how well you run the business or how good the business is,” says Sela. “It’s got to do with people coming to the region.”

Sela, who is originally from Kenya, doesn’t want to fire any of his expanded summer staff of eight employees, including an office manager whose husband has been called up for reserve duty, and he’s not in a position to sell challahs—or beer, like one Be’er Sheva venue is doing—to customers elsewhere. Instead, he has asked for an initial bank loan of 150,000 shekels to tide the company over.

“Technically, what businesses like ours should be doing at the moment is cutting down as hard as they can. But most Israeli employers are pretty loyal to their staff when things like this come around,” says Sela. “We’ve got to stay out there and wait for people to come back.”

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