LEGAL: Holiday travel safety in the COVID era

By Jeff Jones
Special to the UCBJ

With a new surge of COVID-19 cases popping up in many locations, holiday travel raises concerns for more than just those traveling this year. As employers, we must think about the safety of our employees and customers. For some, this may result in the need to implement a holiday travel policy. As with most things COVID-19 related, employee travel policies are new to most employers and raises several questions and concerns. 

It is encouraged that employers consider the least restrictive means available when implementing a travel policy. That means, not restricting travel, but instead encouraging safe travel and providing ways for employees to return to work in the safest way possible. 

PRE-TRAVEL. Of course, to encourage safe travel and prepare for a safe return to work, the employer must first be informed that the employee is in fact traveling. There is no law prohibiting employers from requiring that employees provide notice of their personal travel. Implementation of a policy requiring employees to notify management of out-of-state or long-distance travel should be the first step in limiting potential unnecessary exposure to the virus. As a part of the planning process, employers should consider how much advance notice they will need to make a determination on the handling of employees’ travel plans. This timeframe for providing notice should be specified within the policy. 

POST-TRAVEL. As the main purpose of a travel policy is to reduce the spread of COVID-19, how employers handle employees returning to the workplace after out-of-state or long-distance travel is crucial. Employers should strive to implement a policy that clearly explains what will happen after employees’ travel, whether this be requiring self-quarantine or COVID-19 testing. 

Some employers, who are able to offer remote work options, may want to require all traveling employees to self-quarantine.  However, there is no need to require self-quarantine and/or COVID-19 testing every time an employee travels. Instead, employers may draft their policies with a focus on risk of potential exposure. This means that employers can consider the following when determining whether an employee is required to self-quarantine or test: 

  • Employee’s travel destination;
  • Employee’s means of travel;
  • Any stops made along the way;
  • Duration of travel;
  • Activities participated in during travel;
  • Whether the employee was able to socially distance; and
  • Whether the employee wore a mask.

Employers who decide to implement a policy based on case-by-case determinations must be sure that they are applying their analysis fairly to each traveling employee. Further, employers should take detailed notes outlining their decision and the reasons behind the decision made. 

As a part of their travel policy, employers must also determine whether or not they will be paying traveling employees who are required to self-quarantine for their time spent at home in quarantine. Generally speaking, paying employees for their self-inflicted need to self-quarantine is discouraged, as it is likely to lead to abuse. 

The best option is to allow employees who can work remotely from home to do so. As for employees who cannot work from home, your policy may allow for employees to use up any previously unused vacation, sick, or other paid time off. If the employee does not have any paid time off available, then the self-quarantine could be considered an unpaid leave of absence. 

Keep in mind that a travel policy does not have any bearing on COVID-19 related time off under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which requires employers to provide paid time off when the employee: 

  • Is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine order; 
  • Has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine; 
  • Is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seek­ing a medical diagnosis; 
  • Is caring for another individual subject to a quarantine order or doctor-directed self-          quarantine; or 
  • Is caring for a child whose school or daycare is closed for COVID-19-related reasons. 

The important take-away here is that if you have concerns over employee holiday travel, you should implement a policy and follow it. 

Jeffrey G. Jones is a regional managing member for Wimberly Lawson Wright Daves & Jones PLLC. He can be reached at jjones@wimberlylawson.com.

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