It was a complaint from a customer that alerted the company. He said that whenever he rang a particular saleswoman she was never available and she never returned his calls. This, combined with a progressive drop in performance by this particular employee, which coincided with the start of working from home because of the pandemic, made the company decide to investigate.
They contracted the services of a detective agency to dispel or confirm their suspicions that the saleswoman was not at her home.
"In two days we had all the proof we needed," says Juan Rojas, the managing director of Detectives Unipol. After watching her, they saw that she left home each morning and met a man "with whom she had a relationship". They took a stroll through the centre of Malaga, did a bit of shopping and then had lunch in a beach bar.
The economic crisis of a decade ago and employees' fear of losing their jobs had reduced absenteeism to a minimum. It became too risky to try to sneak out of the office, but Covid-19 seems to have reactivated this practice, facilitated by new work and sanitary protocols imposed by the pandemic, such as working from home and obligatory isolation after contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus.
"Many people are using this situation to do other things during their working day, but are still being paid at the end of the month," says Rojas.
This detective, for whom the profession is in the blood (his father founded the agency in 1963), says "cheeky people" take advantage of the situation and end up spreading these bad habits to colleagues. "They are like rotten apples," he says.
Many companies have identified the profile of staff who do this, because they are the ones who often take time off sick when a bank holiday is coming up or the weekend is approaching, so they get more days off.
On other occasions, though, the company will turn to detectives to ensure that their staff are complying with the Covid-19 protocol.
"Sometimes the companies aren't concerned about the employees' performance but about their health. They want to make sure they are all complying with the health and safety regulations to the letter," says Rojas.
In this complicated situation, private detectives have had plenty of work. Until now a large part of their investigations had to do with changes in the family environment and fraudulent sickness claims, but since coronavirus arrived they have taken on other services.
"Before, a business owner could afford for their workers to be off sick, but now with such small workforces, (many employees are furloughed), they need everyone who is working from home to function 100 per cent and that's why they are turning to us more now," says José Alberto Domínguez, the Andalusian delegate of the Professional Association of Private Detectives of Spain (APDPE), a benchmark in the sector with a presence in every region.
He says that around 30 per cent of the services that detectives provide are related to the pandemic, especially in regions with a strong business network such as Madrid, Catalonia and the Basque Country.
"People who tend to shirk have always found excuses, but with quarantine, which can last up to 15 days and is also considered a work-related accident, so they receive full pay, they are in their element. In Spain, we don't stop to think that the money paid out by Social Security comes out of everyone's pocket, and what's more, if someone commits this type of fraud everyone laughs, but in fact they should be indignant about it," says Domínguez.
Not all the detective work related to the pandemic has to do with companies. A couple of months ago Domínguez's agency was contracted by a client who feared that her ex-partner was not protecting their seven-year-old son from possible contagion when he stayed with him, which would be sufficient to ask a court to change the access arrangements.
"This client lived with her grandfather, who is ill, and she was afraid that the little boy might infect him after he had been staying with his father," says Domínguez.
After following the father for a while he surprised him in a pub which was full of people, with nobody socially distanced or wearing a mask.
Not being careful enough
"The bar owner was failing to comply with the Covid-19 regulations, but in this case the father could have avoided the situation. The mother's suspicions were confirmed. She was afraid he wasn't being careful enough, but she never imagined that he would do anything like that," he explains.
An increasing number of companies and law firms are turning to these detectives so they can present courts with hard evidence which could overturn a situation they consider unjust.
"With good detective work and legally acceptable evidence, the lawyer has what he needs. With what we provide and the client provides, the lawyer can resolve a case," says Javier Ruiz, the managing director of Dea Detectives, who confirms that there has been more work since the pandemic began.
"Of the 4,000 enquiries we received in the past three months, between 30 and 40 per cent have been Covid related," he says.
Common situations which the agency is asked to help prove include people who go to work and leave children on their own, allow another partner to live in the family home with them when they are officially separated from their spouses, and people who continue to work for a company even though they are not registered with Social Security, in order to keep their income hidden and avoid having to pay a pension. The evidence often enables someone to apply to a court for their existing arrangements to be modified.
The detectives have also come across situations such as that of a Malaga company that had a staff member "where things didn't seem right". And, indeed, they found that the employee left his computer connected all morning but was actually working in a beach restaurant in another town.
"He realised he had been caught red-handed and had no answer, so the case never actually had to go to court," says Ruiz.
In another case, they discovered a worker who was supposed to be self-isolating but was actually going to a plot of land he owned in the countryside to help build a house there.
At another agency, the Investigo group, they say that part of this "rogue behaviour" could have been avoided if the track and trace system had worked and there had been a database where companies could have monitored how many days of quarantine had passed.
They haven't had many cases of this type, but some business owners have consulted them with regard to suspicions about an employee, asked them for a quote, but finally decided not to go ahead because of their financial situation and because they were afraid that even with the evidence they wouldn't be able to sack the employee.
"Some of them don't think it's worth carrying out an investigation when it is going to cost them money and may not even lead to a conclusive answer. So they prefer to wait and get rid of the employee when another opportunity arises," says Nuria Medina, the director of Grupo Investigo.
With that in mind, the data provided by these agencies shows that in most cases the companies' suspicions are confirmed in the end. "In our case, it's 85 per cent of the time," says Juan Rojas, of Unipol. "It's a service that costs money and when they decide to proceed it's because they are almost certain," he explains.
These investigations are billed by the hour. They need careful planning, an analysis of needs and the preparation of a budget. "A work-related investigation lasting two or three days can cost between 1,000 and 2,500 euros," says Rojas.