By Lisa Nagele-Piazza, J.D., SHRM-SCP
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, employers may want to update their travel policies to comply with evolving federal and state travel restrictions and workplace safety guidelines.
Many travelers have been grounded since the pandemic began and may continue to stay local until vaccines are widely distributed. If employees do travel during the pandemic, however, employers should consider adding travel-related COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements to their policies, noted Tracey Diamond, an attorney with Troutman Pepper in Princeton, N.J.
Because employers have a duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace, they can monitor travel for employees who are working in the office—rather than telecommuting—and who thus could present a safety threat to other workers, said Angelo Filippi, an attorney with Kelley Kronenberg in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Here are some points for employers to consider when updating their travel and safety policies.
Minimizing Nonessential Travel
COVID-19 case numbers are dropping, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends against nonessential travel. “Travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19,” according to the agency.
In accordance with CDC guidelines, employers should continue to implement flexible meeting and travel options, Filippi said.
Nicole Kamm, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Woodland Hills, Calif., said employers can continue to minimize travel that’s not essential by avoiding in-person meetings and setting up videoconferences through Zoom and other platforms.
“If travel is essential, employers should communicate a policy for travel that is designed to reduce risks during such travel and upon return to the workplace,” Filippi said.
Permitting remote work for employees upon their return from travel and requiring testing when consistent with workplace safety considerations are appropriate practices, he noted. “Of course, ensuring that such employees are not disadvantaged in terms of their employment and compensation should be part of any such policy, including any testing costs they may incur.”
Testing and Quarantining
Testing and quarantine recommendations and requirements have changed as more data on the coronavirus becomes available and the number of cases and hospitalizations fluctuate.
The CDC recommends that travelers get a viral test one to three days before their trip and that they confirm the results are negative before they travel.
“Do not travel if you test positive,” the CDC states. “Immediately isolate yourself, and follow public health recommendations.”
Travelers should get tested again three to five days after their trip and self-quarantine for a full seven days after travel, even if the test is negative. Travelers who don’t get tested should self-quarantine for 10 days after travel, according to the CDC.
In addition to CDC guidelines, employers should note that states and municipalities may have their own post-travel quarantining and testing requirements.
For example, to enter New York, many travelers are required to quarantine for 10 days. Travelers may end their quarantine early if they get tested for COVID-19 within three days before arrival in New York, test again on the fourth day after arrival and receive negative test results.
Exemptions apply to certain travelers, such as essential workers and those coming from states that border New York. Reduced requirements apply to travelers who left New York for less than 24 hours.
Other states recommend—rather than require—quarantining and discourage nonessential travel. California recommends that residents stay within 120 miles of their home. “Traveling into California from other states or countries for tourism or recreation is also strongly discouraged, and anyone traveling into California should self-quarantine for 10 days, unless quarantining is impracticable and the travel is for the sole purpose of meeting critical healthcare needs or other emergency response,” according to the state government’s website.
Employers should note that local orders may be stricter than state requirements. Los Angeles County, for example, requires (rather than recommends) that many travelers quarantine.
“All persons arriving in or returning to the county of Los Angeles from other states or countries must self-quarantine for 10 days after arrival, except as necessary to meet urgent critical healthcare staffing needs or to otherwise engage in emergency response,” according to the county’s travel advisory. The mandate doesn’t apply to people who routinely cross state or country borders for essential travel.
Monitoring Off-Duty Conduct
While most companies have restricted business travel during the pandemic, personal travel is tougher to monitor, observed Randi Kochman, an attorney with Cole Schotz in Hackensack, N.J.
Pandemic fatigue, increased COVID-19 vaccine distribution and warmer weather may prompt employees to book personal travel.
Employers should note that some state laws prohibit employers from taking any action against an employee for off-duty conduct. However, even these laws allow such intrusions when there are legitimate business grounds, Filippi explained. “The safety threat to other employees would likely be valid grounds to require disclosures.”
He noted that policies and practice must be consistently applied. While a policy can deny vacation time when a quarantine requirement would be imposed due to travel to areas designated as “hot spots” by the CDC, such actions can create morale problems.
“Flexible remote-work policies in such circumstances may alleviate this issue,” he said.
Employers will need to decide how to handle a delayed return to the office because an employee needs a COVID-19 test or must quarantine at the end of travel, Diamond said. Will employees be offered paid time off? Will they be required to take their laptops on trips? “Think through what you are going to do if an employee tests positive,” she advised.
Kamm noted that employers may ask workers to submit daily health and travel questionnaires if they are coming into the workplace or otherwise having person-to-person contact during the workday.
For health and travel inquires, employers should create policies and practices that are narrowly tailored, Filippi said. For example, when asking employees to disclose travel plans, employers should avoid asking any personal details regarding the trip.
“Questionnaires should be designed to elicit only information that would reveal a risk of exposure,” he said.