Skift Take

Apple has reportedly offered employees a $500 daily cash bonus to fly to China. Despite a few ethical and liability questions, it's not as controversial as it sounds.

Many businesses can finally get back to traveling technically speaking as airlines patch their networks back together and country borders reopen with a mix of Covid tests and quarantines.

But there’s still a degree of nervousness associated with flying, and although some organizations are lifting their travel bans, not all employees will be comfortable as long as the pandemic lingers.

One way to sway the decision, however, could be a cash bonus.

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News website The Information has reported Apple is paying employees up to $500 a day to encourage U.S. employees to fly to China, on top of the usual daily expense for business travel, to return to work in some of the factories that make its computers and devices.

Visits typically last at least six weeks and include a two-week stay in a quarantine hotel negotiated by Apple and the local Shanghai government, it added.

Skift was unable to reach Apple for comment.

When Restrictions Start To Hurt

After months of travel restrictions, most organizations will be desperate to travel again to return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity. The reported Apple bonus scheme comes as engineers working at Dyson raised concerns with management that they are being forced to return to their workplaces, according to the Guardian.

Some companies may not have a choice but to offer extra, according to one business travel expert based in Germany, who said the country’s car manufacturers in particular  will be feeling the pain of coronavirus.

“Many German manufacturers use automobile factories in China, and have a critical obligation to service the machines. These manufacturers depend on big numbers of engineers going back and forth,” said business consultant Wolfgang Strasser. “They are really suffering, and have to do everything to keep people traveling, even when they need to get quarantined.”

The Federation of German Industries has warned the tightening of entry regulations to China is a major concern for the economy.

Overseas passengers need a negative Covid test result before boarding a plane to China, and are subject to health checks on arrival, while there is a mandatory centralized quarantine in place.

“The new regulations put a heavy strain on the business activities of German industry in the important Chinese market,” the federation said in a statement. “Engineers cannot put systems into operation, service technicians cannot guarantee their smooth functioning, sales staff cannot advise and serve their Chinese customers on site. The consequences of the medium and long-term restrictions are at the expense of our companies.”

Strasser said that strict German labor laws mean companies will have to pay a high extra premium to reinstate corporate travel.

Back to the Question of Ethics

Deciding who travels, and who doesn’t, can be a contentious issue. Several company travel managers Skift spoke to expressed some concern at Apple’s reported financial incentives. And with second waves of the pandemic spreading across the globe, coronavirus-related health risks haven’t disappeared.

“A cash bonus is discriminatory as it potentially rewards younger employees over older employees, or those who are single compared to married parents, or healthy versus those with pre-existing conditions,” said one manager. “I’d assume Apple will have robust risk assessment and mitigation protocols, but are they paying ‘danger money’ for employees to unnecessarily put themselves at risk?”

Another manager, working for a global technology consultancy and also speaking on the condition of anonymity, argued a bonus wouldn’t be an approach he would take. “The choice should not be based on financial gain but on the desire to do your job in an environment that collectively the employee, supplier and employer all believe is the safest environment possible,” he said.

“The morality of buying that risk at $500 a day is sending out the wrong message: your life is worth $21,000 or multiples of that every time you travel. And even if you don’t die or become ill, how certain are you that you are not infecting others and increasing the risk?”

Another travel manager, working in the pharmaceutical sector, said this was also a risky move in light of the discovery of the long-term disabilities now linked to Covid-19. “The company will be liable towards these employees. This is one of the main reasons why many corporations are still not allowing many trips at the moment, because the liability risk is too high,” he said.

“The question of money also puts pressure on employees to accept potential health risks to keep their job career going, or if they are an expert in an area. Even if it’s voluntary, there is a pressure to fly.”

And besides the ethical and liability questions, there’s still a chance that the employee could test positive upon landing, he added.

Business Is Business

However, despite these concerns, they concede that ultimately the decision to travel or not remains the individual’s choice, and in Apple’s case it would have mitigated risks as much as possible, and weighed up the return on investment. The nature of the short-term assignment, rather than flying visit, also seems to back that up.

One consultant argued the concept isn’t really all that new. “Apple’s reported approach is to offer a hardship bonus, not unlike what mining, oil and gas companies have been doing for decades,” said Scott Gilespie, CEO at consultancy tClara.

“These bonuses speak to the core value of business travel — the need to send the right people to solve problems in person when the payoff is far higher than the cost of travel. So long as travelers are free to accept or reject these trips, hardship bonuses are effective and ethical.”

As new types of tests and procedures emerge, including the CommonPass digital health pass, these types of bonuses could even emerge as a popular strategy if travelers start to feel safer in the skies, joining other financial initiatives designed to stimulate corporate travel.

As they say, money talks.

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Tags: apple, china, commonpass, coronavirus, corporate travel

Photo credit: Travelers walk to their respective gates at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. on August 24, 2020. Cory Hancock/International Monetary Fund / Flickr

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