By Allen Smith, J.D.
The Israel-Hamas war raises several HR issues stateside, from disruptions in international business to leave requests from employees shaken by the violence, and even arguments in offices and on production floors among workers with strong, opposing views.
On Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists, as the White House stated, broke into Israeli towns, killing hundreds of civilians and taking others hostage, including children. The attack has resulted in war, as Israel retaliated by striking targets in Gaza. Thousands have died in the war. The White House released a joint statement with leaders of other countries on Oct. 9, saying, “Today, we—President [Emmanuel] Macron of France, Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz of Germany, Prime Minister [Giorgia] Meloni of Italy, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of the United Kingdom and President [Joe] Biden of the United States—express our steadfast and united support to the state of Israel, and our unequivocal condemnation of Hamas and its appalling acts of terrorism.”
A senior Hamas official said the group is open to discussions over a possible truce, having “achieved its targets,” Reuters reported Oct. 9. Oct. 7 “was like 9/11 for Israel,” said Jonathan Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City. He said the war is against terrorists, not Palestinians. Conflating terrorists with Palestinians doesn’t honor Palestinian and Jewish concerns, he added, saying, “Any bias against Palestinians is not OK.”
For those who want time off because they are disturbed by news of the war and fears for family members in the area, HR has much leeway. Employers can grant paid leave to those with accrued paid leave and deny it to those without, Segal said. Otherwise, the employer could be opening a Pandora’s box for other situations that disturb the workforce, such as a local shooting, he noted.
The denial of leave to those who haven’t accrued it illustrates one reason open leave, where employees can take off as much time as they need within reason, might be a preferable method to accrued leave. Open leave might avoid some of the perceived unfairness among those who wonder why some people can take time off in response to disturbing events while others can’t.
With accrued leave, the employer might opt to deny leave requests during this conflict across the board. There would be no legal liabilities with that, said Joseph Beachboard, an attorney and the president of Beachboard Consulting Group in Los Angeles. He noted an exception might be if the event triggers some pre-existing post-traumatic disorder, for example, or latent depression, in which case Americans with Disabilities Act or Family and Medical Leave Act rights might apply. Even if they did, the time off wouldn’t be paid unless some state or local law applied.
However, an employer might opt to go with employees’ first choice and grant the time off to workers who are overwrought by the conflict, at least for a day or two. “It’s not good for anyone to force someone to come into work” if they’re unable to work, Beachboard said, particularly as many companies continue to struggle with retention.
International Business Affected
The Israel-Hamas war isn’t good for U.S. business, in light of Israel being a significant trading partner with the United States, Beachboard added. Already, the war has affected gas prices, Beachboard said. That hits workers in their wallets, making some of them want to telecommute even more, just as many employers are seeking to get employees back to the workplace.
Another concern: Some workers now might be hesitant to travel abroad for work, fearing they could be targeted, Segal said. An employer might let the employee opt out of one trip if the employee’s fears seem reasonable, but should make it clear that it isn’t making a blanket rule out of limiting travel, he noted.
Beachboard said most U.S. citizens have been concerned about what has happened and about the war “from an Israeli standpoint.” But he added that “people have differences of opinions. Disagreements can come up in many conflicts, including this.” Palestinian Americans have protested, with some denouncing Hamas while calling for Israel to cease its attack on Gaza.
Civil discourse is to be expected, but if words get too heated in the office or on the production floor and start interfering with work, the employees can be told not to engage in disruptive conversations and to get back to work. Discussions might be more heated over lunch or during breaks, where employers have less discretion to rein in conversations, Beachboard said. However, even during breaks, if such conversations make others uncomfortable or start to boil over, employers can stop them.