(Not) On the Road Again: Handling Employee Travel in a COVID-19 World

By Lacey Conner, SHRM-CP on Jun 18, 2020
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On the road again

The reopening economy forces employers to grapple with how to maintain a safe workplace while the coronavirus continues posing a significant health threat. The equation is even more complicated if people travel and then return to work, potentially bringing the virus with them and increasing coworkers’ exposure risk.

Health authorities generally suggest that companies continue avoiding employee business travel, even as workplaces begin reopening. This may not be possible for organizations whose workers are considered essential and must travel to perform their jobs, however. Employers also cannot legally prevent employees from embarking on vacations or other pleasure trips.

To limit COVID-19 exposure risk in the workplace, employers should take precautionary steps that may include requiring employees to self-quarantine after they return from any travel. Before making that ask, however, employers should take their cues from local, state, and federal authorities.

For example, the CDC recommends that Americans who travel internationally self-isolate for the suspected COVID-19 incubation period of 14 days after returning to the United States, because, “There is widespread, ongoing transmission of novel coronavirus worldwide.” As such, the CDC considers all countries to be high-risk and suggests that Americans returning from cruises and foreign excursions take specific health precautions, including a 14-day self-quarantine. The U.S. Department of State encourages adherence to the CDC travel guidelines, and so should employers.

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It is less clear if business owners should or can deny employees entry to workplaces for two weeks after domestic travels, even to destinations with high coronavirus infection rates. The exceptions are when local or state authorities have instituted self-quarantine mandates, when an employee was knowingly exposed to the virus, or when an employee is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

Businesses that require post-travel quarantines in the absence of such guidance from public health agencies could be violating protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, medical privacy laws, and state wage and hour laws. These employers should consult legal counsel or HR experts at Axcet to avoid infringing on the law or employee rights.

Nearly every authoritative body concurs that non-essential travel should be avoided amid the coronavirus outbreak. In the case of travel businesses deem necessary or employees choose for personal reasons, employers should encourage workers to follow the CDC’s considerations for travelers.

Legal and HR best practices dictate that employers treat employees equally – for example, asking all employees about upcoming travel plans, not just management or other segments of the workforce – and defer to official sources when sharing information about or informing virus-related workplace policies.

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