by Elizabeth Sigler.
The coronavirus and other illnesses may pose complications for employers that require their employees to travel. International travel can complicate whether the illness constitutes a workplace injury under workers’ compensation law. If for some reason it’s not covered by workers’ compensation insurance, employers could face direct liability for the harm, which could be astronomical if the employee died or suffered serious complications. This is a gray area because cases exist going both ways, covering or refusing coverage, when an employee suffers catastrophic illness or injury abroad. Unfortunately, relying on workers’ compensation insurance coverage may not solve all of your problems.
Employers should also keep in mind OSHA’s “general duty” clause. OSHA requires employers to provide employees a workplace free from known hazards. The problem here is the diffuse nature of the current coronavirus threat: it currently appears to be spreading but also seems localized in regions of China. Despite the virus being localized, most reports indicate that many potential carriers are not currently quarantined. In addition, international airports and flights probably present the highest risk of exposure outside directly affected areas.
All this said, there’s currently no clear rule to follow. If an employee refuses to travel right now because of safety concerns, employers should not mandate it or discipline them. Doing so would implicate OSHA’s anti-retaliation protections. You can certainly make travel to Asia optional, but travel to any international hub is going to be riskier than usual right now. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending no travel to China right now, so employers should not ask or require any travel there in the foreseeable future (if it is even possible).
In the short term, here are some steps that might reduce your legal risks:
- Contact your workers’ compensation carrier for clarification on coverage when employees are abroad.
- Make all international travel optional through the spring.
- Instruct travelers to check CDC, World Health Organization, and Department of State travel advisories for any destination country at the time of booking and no more than 24 hours before departure.
- Suspend travel to any destination for which the CDC currently recommends no travel or for which the Department of State has issued a Level 3 advisory or higher.
- Distribute OSHA international travel guidance to international travelers.
- Ask travelers to confirm travel health insurance coverage before departure and recommend they request a directory of in-network hospitals or clinics at their destination.
In sum, the best practice for business owners that need their employees to travel is to keep an eye on all current advisories and be responsive to any employees who raise concerns.
Get Answers to Coronavirus Travel Concerns from an Atlanta Employment Attorney
If you have questions about employee travel during the coronavirus or other disease outbreaks, don’t hesitate to contact the Atlanta employment attorneys at Stanton Law. We can help you understand your risk and responsibilities as you protect your employees and your business. The experienced Atlanta business attorneys at Stanton Law are available at 404-531-2341, or visit us online.