As states are relaxing COVID-19-related restrictions, employers should remain cautious about business travel. California’s public health orders still limit travel to an “urgent matter” or that which is “essential to your permitted work.” Given the increased risk of exposure inherent in traveling, employers should continue discouraging any business travel. Employers for whom work-related travel is essential should consider issuing a temporary travel policy consistent with the below guidelines.
Confirm That the Travel Is Essential in All Relevant Jurisdictions
As a starting point, employers should ensure that the travel really is “essential” to the work their employees are doing, including whether the employees’ work falls under one of the categories of infrastructure that are currently allowed to operate. 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 there is a valid basis for concluding that the travel is essential, employers should still consider discouraging travel, making any travel 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 COVID-19.
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 a underlying medical condition placing them at higher risk; or
- 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. As with all employees, any employee with such symptoms should be directed to stay home until they are symptom-free. This includes at least 3 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 does travel, the employer is required to provide personal protective equipment. In California, employers must provide required work equipment and reimburse employees for necessary expenditures in the course of their work. If an employee needs any 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.
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. For example, this might include selecting an airline that is limiting passenger capacity on commercial flights, requiring cloth face coverings for all passengers, and reducing or eliminating food and beverage service. Forcing 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.
Employees who are traveling by car or public transportation should be required to wear cloth face coverings inside the vehicle and to wash or to 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. For example, 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 required precautions in the state where the employee is traveling.
In addition, 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 down time. The policy might also require employees to wear cloth face coverings while indoors or in an area where they will be within 6 feet of other people, wash their hands frequently or use hand sanitizer, and remain 6 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 so 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.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, employers should bear in mind that travel still remains risky. The safest approach is to prohibit work-related travel. But 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.