Andy Kurtzig hoped this day would never come, but he’s been preparing for it for years anyway.
The CEO of JustAnswer, a company that connects people with experts online, has been hiring employees throughout Ukraine since 2010, and currently has 252 employees based there. “We had an engineer who needed help with a project, and he knew a guy in Ukraine and we hired that guy, and he did a great job. And then he knew a guy, and then he knew a guy, and so on,” Kurtzig told Protocol.
During the 2014 Crimean crisis, some of JustAnswer’s employees were drafted into the Ukrainian military. Kurtzig realized he needed a plan, and has spent the last eight years figuring out how to protect employees while minimizing disruption to the company’s operations.
Now, he finds himself in the unenviable position of teaching other leaders who have found themselves in a similar situation how to protect their workers and businesses. “Lots of companies are pulling out of Ukraine and fleeing Ukraine because of all this, and that’s exactly what Putin wants,” Kurtzig said. “We’re not going to flee and run away. Their job is safe and secure. We are committed to Ukraine.”
The tech presence in Ukraine is noteworthy. The country’s IT industry grew by 20.4% in 2020, the BBC reported. Grammarly was founded in Ukraine, and Google, Snap, Oracle and Ring all have significant Ukrainian workforces. The war has forced tech companies to quickly adopt plans to best support their employees at a terrifying time for Ukrainians, who are sheltering in subway stations and reeling from attacks that have already resulted in deaths.
Having a flexible plan is key, Kurtzig said. JustAnswer’s plan has varying tiers depending on the severity of the situation. Personal safety of employees is the most important consideration, so JustAnswer is covering relocation costs. At least seven employees have already chosen to move to western Ukraine to avoid Russia’s troops.
Relocation is in the cards for other companies as well. Wix evacuated employees to its offices in Krakow, Poland, and a location in Turkey. Lyft is also financing employees who want to relocate, and offering mental health resources as well as increased time off. Uber’s doing the same, and told its gig-working drivers to stay home. Ring didn’t share its relocation plans for employees with Protocol, but said it is “closely coordinating with the leadership of the team we work with in Ukraine.”
Grammarly also has deep ties in Ukraine, as CEO Brad Hoover laid out on LinkedIn. “Ukraine holds a special place in my heart,” Hoover wrote. “Grammarly was founded in Ukraine, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know its vibrant culture and kind people over the past decade — that includes many of our resilient, unstoppable team members who are yet again facing stress and uncertainty.” Like Kurtzig, Hoover emphasized his dedication to Ukraine, noting that Grammarly is still hiring in the country.
Grammarly spokesperson Senka Hadzimuratovic said the company has a comprehensive contingency plan to protect employees and the business. “This includes, for example, securing backup communication methods and temporary transfer of business-critical responsibilities to team members outside of Ukraine to ensure our Ukraine-based team members can focus on the immediate safety of themselves and their families,” Hadzimuratovic wrote, noting that Grammarly’s data is stored on servers in the United States.
Big tech companies with a presence in Ukraine have, so far, been less outwardly vocal about their plans for employees there. Google, Snap and Oracle didn’t respond to requests for comment. But Tim Cook tweeted on Thursday that Apple is doing all it can for its Ukrainian teams and “will be supporting local humanitarian efforts.”
Workforce management service Safeguard Global is helping employees move into more remote areas of the country, as well as neighboring countries like Romania. CEO Bjorn Reynolds said the company is also providing access to mental health professionals.
Relocation is only step one when it comes to preparation. JustAnswer is backing up data on U.S. servers, working with independent internet providers and setting up multiple communication options. Kurtzig said JustAnswer is also considering multiple payment options in case banks freeze, such as paying employees through banks in Poland or, if that doesn’t work, cryptocurrency.
Companies also need to be prepared for military drafts. One of JustAnswer’s employees is already heading to eastern Ukraine to help as a paramedic. Others have previously been in the military and could be called to assist at any moment. JustAnswer will pay half of employees’ salaries if they’re called to fight, and will reconfigure positions to cover for missing team members.
“We can’t take on long-term projects right now with our Ukrainian folks because we don’t know what the situation is going to be in six months, let alone six days,” Kurtzig said. “We're trying to be as lean as possible right now.”
Kurtzig wants to do everything he can to help his employees — one of whom lives near the Lviv airport and has turned her bathroom into a makeshift shelter in case of attack. But the company is also focused on Ukrainians at large. In an emergency meeting Thursday, JustAnswer’s leaders decided to put together a medical care fund for anyone impacted in Ukraine. The company and Kurtzig personally will each match donations.
“It’s not just bad for our company or our employees or tech,” Kurtzig said. “It’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for freedom, it’s bad for stability. It is a very bad situation for the planet.”
Veronica Irwin assisted with reporting.