The current COVID-19 pandemic has led to many borders and immigration authorities closing across the globe. As a result of this, both employers and their advisors are encountering unforeseen problems when trying to get international assignees and their families home safely.
So what can we learn from our current situation, and which practicalities should a global mobility manager consider to ensure they are prepared to tackle a future crisis?
Assignees could become stranded
In light of the spread of COVID-19, the challenge many global mobility managers are facing
is that staff are now stuck in their host location – even if the assignee has lived in their host country for a while, being unable to leave during a crisis can become a source of worry and distress for the employee and their family. It is vital for businesses to have evacuation plans in place that detail how an employee will be removed in a crisis.
But, in some cases, evacuation is simply not possible. For example, on the 18th March, Indian Prime Minister Modi, in an unprecedented move, announced the closure of his country’s borders to those travelling from Europe – including India’s own citizens. With such short notice, this left Indian assignees abroad stranded in their temporary homes. On the 14th April, it was announced that the lockdown already in place would be extended until the 3rd May, elongating the experience for stranded assignees.
In an instance like this, it’s important to consider how you can continue to offer support to your employee – both practical support, such as assisting with short-term, flexible accommodation arrangements, and emotional support, caring for their mental wellbeing during what is doubtlessly an extremely stressful time.
What happens to an assignee’s accommodation if they have to demobilise quickly?
Even nationals who are free to travel home may experience practical difficulties in getting there. Apart from the challenge of finding flights, they may also face problems when attempting to terminate their accommodation lease early. Given worldwide economic uncertainties, some landlords are unlikely to take a benevolent view of losing their future rental income.
- What if the lease is about to expire and the assignee is stuck in the host location with no real knowledge of how long they will be there?
- Who can help the assignee to re-negotiate an extension, or even a new lease so that they can maintain a roof over their head?
Businesses should have a plan in place which assigns this responsibility and facilitates an action plan.
How will the assignee’s family be affected?
Assignees with family face further challenges during times of uncertainty.
- If the family is in the host location with them, then what might happen to their child’s school place if they demobilise back to their home country?
- Can the school contract be terminated part-way through the educational year, or will the employer be committed to those costs as well?
- Aside from costs, what happens if the family can’t find school places in the home country when they return?
All of these questions should be considered in your business emergency evacuation plan.
If the assignee is alone in a host country (unaccompanied), then they might be separated from their family for an extended period of time. It’s important for businesses to consider how they can satisfy their duty of care and support the assignee, perhaps by facilitating regular contact with their family, and to consider the potential mental health impacts of such situations.
If you haven’t already included mental health considerations in your policies, consider how this support can be included.
What is the true cost of a crisis?
From a compliance point of view, whilst many tax and immigration authorities are being pragmatic in extending deadlines and the application of treaty rules, problems still arise. For example in Spain, some applications for the expatriate tax regime have been delayed by the local lockdown. As a result, assignees there might be paying a higher rate of tax than would otherwise apply, which increases the cost to the employer (assuming a net pay arrangement is in place).
The employee and the company could face larger costs than expected – do you have a contingency in your budgets to account for this? Employers of stranded assignees face accentuated issues in satisfying their duty of care - for example, it’s standard practice that assignees may be, for a short term at least, initially placed in relatively expensive serviced accommodation. Many employers, whilst trying to cut costs elsewhere, have been forced into a situation where they must maintain stranded employees in costly accommodation, with no alternative available.
Having an emergency accommodation plan in place for the future may enable you to avoid such a high cost outcome.
How can employers with international assignees plan ahead and get helpful and insightful assistance in preparing for a crisis?
There is a lot we can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic – all of the above problems have arisen to real people and real companies in what is frequently labelled an ‘unprecedented’ global situation.
If you’re looking for support, we have a team of Global Mobility experts who can use their 20+ years of industry experience to support clients with their mobility programmes. We currently look after 12,000+ contractors and permanent staff across the globe and are well placed to support clients with their mobile workforce needs.