As states have begun relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions, employers should remain cautious about business travel – particularly because there have been major spikes in infections in states that either reopened too early or did not mandate social distancing and masks. Employers for whom work-related travel is essential should consider issuing a temporary travel policy consistent with the following guidelines:
Confirm That Travel is Essential in All Relevant Jurisdictions
As a starting point, employers should ensure that the travel is “essential” to the work their employees are doing. Any employer considering whether to authorize business travel should check the relevant orders in the state and county where their employees intend to go and confirm that the work they will be doing is considered essential there, too.
Make Travel Optional
If you have concluded that the travel is essential, employers should still consider making it optional, requiring advance managerial approval, and documenting in writing that any employee agreeing to travel is doing so voluntarily. Some employees may be uncomfortable with travel, either because they are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves (due to age, medical condition, or disability), or because they live with someone who is at a higher risk of contracting it.
Employers who require employees to travel may need to defend that requirement in response to various legal claims, including:
- Worker’s compensation, if an employee becomes sick while traveling
- Disability discrimination or failure to accommodate a disability, if the employee asks not to travel due to an underlying medical condition placing them at higher risk
- Whistleblower retaliation, if the employee raised a protected concern about safety related to travel
Strictly Prohibit Any Employee With COVID-19 Symptoms From Traveling
Employers should make clear that any employee exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 (including fever, cough, chills, loss of taste or smell, difficulty breathing, chest pain, or other unexplained symptoms) is strictly prohibited from traveling. Any employee with such symptoms should be directed to stay home until they are symptom-free. This includes at least three consecutive days with no fever and improvement in respiratory symptoms, and at least 10 days since the symptoms first appeared.
Alternatively, employees who have tested negative for COVID-19 post-recovery may resume work. Employers might also consider requiring an employee embarking on work-related travel to certify in writing that they have no symptoms of COVID-19 and have not been diagnosed with COVID-19 recently.
Provide Personal Protective Equipment
If an employee does travel, the employer is required to provide personal protective equipment. If an employee needs any equipment to safely travel, and wouldn’t otherwise need that equipment, the employer should provide it. This could include a face covering and/or a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes.
Select Transportation Providers Carefully
To reduce the risk of exposing employees to COVID-19 while traveling, employers might review precautions the transportation carriers are taking and select carriers with the strongest safeguards in place. This might include selecting a car service with established safety and disinfecting protocols and a history of providing quality service.
Employees who are traveling by car or public transportation should be required to wear cloth face coverings inside the vehicle and to wash or sanitize their hands both immediately before and immediately after exiting the vehicle.
Review Public Health Orders in Other Jurisdictions
If an employee is traveling to another state, the employer should review the state and county’s public health orders and share them with the employee in advance. Some jurisdictions require wearing face coverings in public, others require physical distancing, and others have banned certain activities. The employer should instruct the employee to review those requirements and take all precautions in the state where they are traveling.
Additionally, any COVID-19-related travel policy should address other possible activities in which employees might engage while on a work-related trip. For example, the policy might discourage employees from visiting high-risk businesses such as restaurants, bars, or gyms during their downtime. The policy might also require employees to wear cloth face coverings while indoors or in an area where they will be within six feet of other people, wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer, and remain six feet away from other people at all times – even if those precautions are not mandatory in the travel destination.
Consider Additional Precautions Upon the Employee’s Return
When the employee returns from traveling, the employer should consider whether that employee will be allowed back into the office or to interact with coworkers in person. The most cautious approach would be for the employee to work from home for two weeks to minimize their risk of infecting anyone else. Employers can also require employees to undergo COVID-19 testing before returning to the workplace, as long as the testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity, and any out of pocket costs are reimbursed. The time the employee spends traveling to and from the test site should also be paid.
Helping Corporate Travelers Overcome Fears and Trepidation
Even if all protocols are being followed some corporate travelers may not feel ready to take that first trip. “Covid-19 anxiety” is a real issue that travel managers must face, among other areas out of their control.
Despite supplier cleanliness programs, corporate travelers also know the main purpose of their trip is to visit someone. While traveling may be deemed safe, how they perceive the risk on the other end of the trip could be another factor. Other factors should also be taken into consideration, such as government action if the travel takes an employee to another country.
In a recent survey, business travelers were asked what airport and airline measures were important to them. Top of the list was frequent, enhanced airport and cabin disinfection, as well as new boarding procedures to accommodate social distancing. Temperature checks were seen as moderately important, just beneath rapid COVID-19 testing for passengers. In another poll, business travelers revealed that having information on hand was also one of their top requirements.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, employers should bear in mind that travel remains risky, so it’s not unreasonable for people to have some trepidation. For employers for whom travel is essential to their operations, implementing a thoughtful travel policy can help reduce the risk of employees becoming sick or spreading illness to others in the workforce, and the associated employee anxiety regarding the same.