Employee Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on global and domestic travel. As traveling increases the chance of spreading and contracting COVID-19, many health agencies, including the CDC and the California Department of Public Health, recommend limiting travel during this time period. For employers, this can raise questions about whether they can require employees to travel, and whether they can restrict employees from traveling for the safety of other employees in the workplace.
What steps should I take when asking employees to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Relaxing your travel policies around COVID-19 may feel appropriate as we round the corner towards returning to normal operations. However, a host of liability issues may arise from asking employees to travel during this time. Here are some steps to consider in order to ensure employee safety and mitigate liability when asking employees to travel during the pandemic.
When asking employees to travel during the pandemic, you should continue the practice of allowing your employees to opt-out of travel assignments without repercussions, and should not force any employee to travel who feels uncomfortable doing so. Employers may want to provide and/or encourage proper COVID-19 testing before and after travel, and employees should provide a written acknowledgement of all potential risks of travel prior to embarking on the trip.
In order to ensure all relevant health guidelines are carefully followed during a trip, you should also ask vendors to fill out a travel form confirming all local rules regarding COVID-19, including number of people allowed in a room, quarantine times, and more. Additionally, internal travel policies should be updated to account for appropriate mitigation steps that should be taken by employees during travel, including but not limited to: hand-washing, wearing a proper face-covering, and minimizing outings and contacts with other people.
Having an appropriate insurance policy is especially important during this time. You should review your insurance policy to ensure that you have adequate coverage for workers compensation and directors and officers, and should also ensure that your general liability insurance coverage allows for indemnification claims (assuming that clients require you indemnify them). If applicable, consider updating your professional services template agreement to include a clause for indemnification by the client for their negligence.
Because traveling employees will likely need to have meals delivered in order to limit potential COVID exposures, consider increasing travel meal allowances to account for the additional cost of delivery fees and extending trips to allow for necessary quarantine times, in order to further mitigate claims about putting employees in harm’s way while travelling for work.
Can I restrict my employees’ personal travel during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Typically, an employer in California cannot interfere with an employee’s off-duty travel plans. At the same time, an employer has a duty under OSHA and Cal-OSHA to ensure a safe workplace for its employees. Therefore, during the COVID-19 pandemic, employers may consider implementing a policy that requires employees to disclose any personal travel plans or recent travel. While the health guidelines are often changing, we recommend having a clear travel policy that incorporates CDC guidelines, California guidelines, and any local guidelines.
Such a travel policy should also include information about self-isolation or quarantine periods post-travel. If available, an employer may require an employee to work remotely during the self-isolation or quarantine periods post-travel. An employer may also require a negative COVID-19 test before the employee can return to the workplace. Employers may also require an employee who has traveled to a high-risk area to provide a doctor’s note certifying their ability to return to work.
Like any employer policy or procedure, the policy must apply equally for all employees and it should be consistent with business necessity. For instance, if you have an entirely remote workforce, the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace is unlikely and restrictions on employee travel may not be necessary. In order to ensure the consistent application of such a travel policy, it is best practice to have a written policy that is signed by all employees prior to any personal travel during the pandemic.
An employee who is dishonest or deceiving about personal travel, and thereby violates the written policy, may be subject to discipline. Prior to the issuance of any discipline, speak to your employee to understand their reasons for travel and communicate expectations on personal travel clearly.
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