Dozens of massive companies have now halted all non-essential global travel in the midst of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Companies such as JP Morgan, Nestlé, Ericsson, LG, Google, Walmart, and many others have completely restricted all nonessential employee travel as part of their mission to protect the health and wellbeing of their employees against the spread of COVID-19.
There are many ways that organizations are choosing to restructure in order to support their staff, their operations, and their employees’ continued health and safety. Options include restricting travel, splitting up teams to work in smaller groups (or individually with the use of virtual networking), staying in specific locations and not traveling between multiple offices, and finally by quarantining staff that may have been exposed to the virus.
Based on improvements to technology, we have never before seen abilities to connect with one another remotely. The necessity of in-person meetings is dwindling and with the use of virtual conferencing, teams can still meet without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Additionally, companies are requesting that employees not go on vacations or travel unnecessarily during this time, until the effects of the pandemic have abated. Every day, more countries are restricting nationwide travel and corporations are expected to not only abide by these restrictions, but also make the conscious choice to refrain from nonessential travel.
These stipulations make it very clear that multinational travel has been halted, but domestic travel is also being discouraged? Conferences are being shut down daily based on the fear of increased exposure and spread of the disease. But what about the conferences that are still running? Can you require your employees to go to such conferences if they are not comfortable traveling under these circumstances?
Overall, the best advice companies can take is to consider the government regulated laws about employee health and safety. Employees generally have a right to be employed at a workplace where they are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm. If an employee has a medically recognized and compromised immune system, a disability that will create a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, or are pregnant with certain complications, then it is certainly probable that general duty clauses may come into effect and employees could successfully refuse to travel.
Realistically, it is up to the employer to ensure that the pros and cons of employee travel are weighed seriously at this time. Almost all businesses are facing uncertainty regarding their financial futures, however the risk of contracting COVID-19 should be the primary mitigating factor. This must be discussed on a case-by-case basis and will also depend on the areas of travel and the number of people in attendance at the conference. Overall, employers should continually focus on ensuring that their employees are not put at any unnecessary risk based on travel requirements that are deemed mandatory by a company.
Finally, if a country or a region goes into ‘lockdown’, both employers and employees alike will face no choice but to discontinue all non-essential travel or risk being in non-compliance with that country’s laws.