8 considerations for a COVID-19 travel policy

If business travel can't be delayed, employers must follow strict guidelines to protect employee health and reduce risk.
By: | July 30, 2020 • 6 min read
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As some states are relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions and businesses are eager to resume operations, HR leaders may be juggling competing interests: executives wanting to return to “business as usual,” employees fearful of working outside their homes and ever-evolving federal, state and local guidance related to the virus.

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Although businesses are slowly reopening, the Centers for Disease Control and many jurisdictions still discourage travel. Given the increased risk of exposure inherent in traveling, employers should continue discouraging any business travel and may want to implement a temporary travel policy related to COVID-19. The below guidelines are intended to assist HR leaders in developing and implementing such a policy.

Related: Navigating the legal questions of workplace returns

Author Rebecca Stephens of Farella Braun + Martel

Consider the Risks of Business-Related Travel

Business executives may have questions about why travel should be discouraged, particularly if some employees want to travel for work. In advising business leaders, it is important to keep in mind that employers face legal risk if an employee is exposed to COVID-19 while traveling.  These risks include worker’s compensation claims (if an employee becomes sick while traveling); a lawsuit for disability discrimination or failure to accommodate a disability (if the employee asks not to travel due to a underlying medical condition placing them at higher risk); or whistleblower retaliation litigation (if the employee raised a protected concern about safety related to travel). Given these risks, it is important to exercise caution in permitting employees to travel for work.

Confirm That the Travel is Essential in All Relevant Jurisdictions

Before authorizing any travel, employers should ensure that the intended travel really is “essential” to the work their employees are doing, including whether the employees’ work falls under a category of infrastructure that is currently allowed to operate. Any employer considering whether to authorize business travel should review 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. A COVID-19 travel policy might require the employee and their manager (or another designated company representative) to document this determination in writing as part of the approval process.

Make Travel Optional

If there is a valid basis for concluding that the travel is essential, employers should still consider discouraging travel, making travel optional, requiring advance managerial approval and documenting the employee’s voluntary agreement to travel. Some employees may be uncomfortable with travel because they are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 (due to age, medical condition or disability) or because they live with someone who is at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Emphasizing that travel is optional may help reduce legal risk and support employee morale.

Strictly Prohibit Any Employee with COVID-19 Symptoms from Traveling

Any COVID-19-related travel policy should state that an employee exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, 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 any 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 travels for work, the employer likely must provide personal protective equipment. For example, California employers must provide required work equipment and reimburse employees for necessary expenditures in the course of their work. If an employee needs equipment in order 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. Any travel policy should explain how to obtain personal protective equipment or seek reimbursement for purchasing it.

Select Transportation Providers Carefully

To reduce the risk of exposing employees to COVID-19 while traveling, employers may review the precautions that transportation carriers are taking and select carriers with the strongest safeguards in place. For example, this might include selecting an airline that is limiting passenger capacity on flights, requiring cloth face coverings for all passengers and reducing or eliminating food and beverage service. Requiring an employee to take the least expensive flight could result in additional costs if that airline is not implementing sufficient safety protocols and the employee becomes sick. The same considerations would apply to hotels or other transportation carriers such as buses and trains.

Related: 4 takeaways about return-to-work plans

Any COVID-19 travel policy should also address expectations for employees traveling by car or public transportation, including wearing cloth face coverings inside the vehicle and washing or sanitizing their hands both immediately before and immediately after exiting the vehicle. This is to reduce the risk of the employee becoming sick, as well as the risk of the employee infecting others.

Review Public Health Orders in Other Jurisdictions

If an employee is traveling to another state, the employer should share that state and county’s public health orders with the employee in advance. For example, some jurisdictions require face coverings in public, others mandate physical distancing and others have banned certain activities. A COVID-19 travel policy should require the employee to review those requirements and take all ordered precautions in the location where the employee is traveling.

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In addition, any COVID-19 travel policy should address other 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 down time. 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.

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Consider Additional Precautions Upon the Employee’s Return

Finally, any COVID-19-related travel policy should address whether employees will be allowed back into the office or to interact with co-workers in person upon their return from travel. 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 require employees to undergo COVID-19 testing before returning to the workplace so long as the testing is job-related and consistent with business necessity, the requirement is applied consistently and any out-of-pocket costs are reimbursed. The time the employee spends traveling to and from the test site should also be paid.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, HR professionals and employers should bear in mind that travel remains risky. The safest approach is to prohibit work-related travel. But for employers for whom travel is essential to 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.

Rebecca Stephens is an attorney in Farella Braun + Martel’s San Francisco office, where she counsels clients on developing and implementing sound employment policies, conducting workplace investigations and administering separations from employment.