Holiday Travel – Avoiding a Bah Humbug! Season
For most of us, the holidays are a time to reconnect with family and friends. The holidays are also a time when many employees travel outside of their home communities. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention warns that travel increases an individual’s chance of getting and spreading the coronavirus (aka COVID-19). So, in a year marred by the coronavirus pandemic and with many communities experiencing surging positivity rates, how can employers reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak and keep their workplaces safe, but avoid being a Scrooge?
Employers should consider the following points as we move into the holiday travel season.
Employers are generally permitted to inquire about an employee’s personal travel plans. An easy way to accomplish this is by requesting that employees complete pre-travel inquiries. Pre-travel inquiries are permitted, so long as they are applied neutrally and uniformly, and no personal information is sought. Pre-travel inquiries should be limited, however, to information necessary to determine whether, and for how long, an employee is traveling out-of-state or internationally. Before implementing a policy that requires employees to disclose their travel plans, make sure you clearly communicate the goal of the policy and the use of the information. Being clear and open up front can help mitigate impacts on employee morale or enforcement problems.
Review Your Policies
Under most vacation policies, employers have wide latitude to approve or deny an employee’s time off request. This authority is not altered during the pandemic, so employers may consider rejecting time off requests for employees traveling to COVID-19 hot spots. As with any workplace decision, make sure you are consistent to ward off claims of discrimination.
Employers should also consider amending their written time off policies to incorporate the requirement for pre-travel disclosure and to detail what employees need to know regarding possible self-quarantine upon return. For instance, will quarantining employees be required to work remotely? Will they be compensated during self-quarantine?
In general employees who are non-exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) do not need to be compensated if they do not work. On the other hand, if an employee is exempt under the FLSA employee, only full workweeks can be unpaid, and the employee cannot perform any work during that workweek or must be paid for the entire workweek. Regardless of the employee’s exemption status, employers must review their time off policies to determine what rights employees may have under the policies.
Enforce State Travel Restrictions
Both New Hampshire and ME have established travel advisories, restrictions, and/or quarantine periods for incoming resident and non-resident travelers. For instance, New Hampshire requires that anyone traveling to New Hampshire after spending an extended period of time in a non-New England state self-quarantine for a two-week period. Employees can “test out” of the quarantine period if they are asymptomatic and obtain a negative test on day 7 of quarantine. Thus, employees that travel outside of the surrounding New England states (ME, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island) are required to self-quarantine for two weeks upon their return to New Hampshire, unless they “test out” of the quarantine period.
ME has similar travel restrictions. Like New Hampshire, ME requires a two-week self-quarantine period for individuals who travel to the state from outside of ME. The quarantine requirement does not apply to individuals traveling from Vermont or New Hampshire. ME also permits individuals to forego the mandatory self-quarantine upon arrival if they obtain and receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to their arrival in ME.
Be Ready to Handle COVID-19 Exposure
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and the holidays present the possibility of even broader outbreaks, employers must be prepared to deal with the coronavirus. Now is the time to develop, update, or review your pandemic response plan and safety policies and practices. Additionally, in light of the CDC’s revised guidance concerning who is considered a “close contact,” employers should strategize effective methods for contact tracing should an employee test positive in the workplace. The lower threshold for a “close contact” will likely increase the number of employees impacted by potential exposure, resulting in required isolation for more employees.
At the link, the CDC provides the most up-to-date guidance on how employers should handle employees with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Additionally, the CDC provides a very helpful FAQ section for employers.
Without question, this has been a difficult year for employers and employees alike, and it is natural that we all look forward to some fellowship and good cheer over the holidays. Even so, employers have an ongoing responsibility to maintain safe workplaces, so it is important that employers continue to follow CDC guidance and take reasonable precautions to ensure the health and safety of their employees.
Keeping employees safe, however, does not require employers to play the role of Scrooge. Instead, taking common sense steps right now, such as educating employees about travel risks, requiring employees to report out-of-state personal travel, and clearly communicating expectations regarding post-travel return to work can help employers reduce the chance of COVID-19 outbreaks in the workplace, maintain workplace morale, and allow employees to enjoy the holiday season.
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