Is it Safe to Travel for Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

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As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the health and safety of people around the world, it is also having a major impact on the American economy. For employees who are lucky enough to still have a job, many are working from home until it is safe for offices to reopen. However, there are other workers whose job depends on their ability to travel. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to practice social distancing on a fully booked airplane or train.

Workers may be in close contact with other passengers who have COVID-19 or were recently exposed to someone who does. Public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are constantly monitoring the situation and regularly provide employers with travel updates and safety tips that they can share with their employees. Workers who follow recommendations can reduce their risk of exposure to the virus.

How can Travelers Protect Themselves on an Airplane?

Air travel is not an ideal mode of transportation during a global pandemic. Unless airlines limit the number of seats that they sell, passengers cannot practice social distancing. Although they are not limiting ticket sales, airlines are taking proactive steps to ensure that their airplanes are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after every flight. In addition, most airplanes are equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which recycle and refresh the cabin air every two to three minutes. If someone cannot avoid air travel during the pandemic, the following are additional steps they can take to stay safe:

  • Travelers should carry hand sanitizer or disinfecting wipes in a carry-on bag.
  • Passengers should wipe down all surfaces, including armrests, tray tables, TV screens, seat belts, and other commonly touched surfaces using disinfecting wipes.
  • When using the lavatory, travelers should close the lid before flushing, as feces can contain viruses that can be released into the air.
  • Passengers should turn on the air vent and position it toward their lap. This helps direct any airborne viruses toward the floor as opposed to circulating around the face.
  • Those using the lavatory need to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Passengers should avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Travelers should bring non-perishable food and water for the flight so they do not have to touch food items that flight attendants and other airline employees have also touched.
  • Everyone should wear a face covering.

Hotel Safety

Employees who travel by plane often stay in hotels for the duration of the business trip. In response to the pandemic, many hotels are now using hospital-grade cleaners that target viruses and bacteria that regular cleaners cannot kill. Employees are encouraged to take the following additional steps to reduce the risk of exposure during a hotel stay:

  • Hotel guests should wash hands thoroughly after checking into the hotel.
  • Once someone has checked into their room, they should use disinfecting wipes to clean all frequently used surfaces, including doorknobs, phones, light switches, alarm clocks, and remote controls.
  • Those traveling should bring their own pillow or pillowcase. Hotel guests may also request a set of unopened linens.
  • It is best to avoid shaking hands when attending business meetings.
  • Employees should wear a face mask throughout the day as they attend conferences and meetings where they are in close contact with others.
  • If someone sneezes or coughs, they should cover their mouth and nose, then wash their hands or use hand sanitizer.

Safety Tips When Traveling by Public Transit

If an employee must take a train, bus, or some other form of public transportation to get to work, they should keep the following safety tips in mind:

  • The pandemic may impact schedules and procedures, so it is best to check the local transit authority before traveling or commuting.
  • Commuters should try to limit the number of surfaces they touch. If someone cannot avoid touching certain surfaces, such as ticket machines, elevator buttons, touchscreens, and restroom surfaces, they should wash their hands for 20 seconds.
  • If possible, using touchless payment methods are preferred. If passengers use a credit card, they should wipe it down after the ticket agent returns it.
  • Social distancing should be practiced whenever possible. Commuters should sit as far away from other passengers and avoid large groups.
  • Commuters should follow the recommended social distancing guidelines offered by transit authorities, including decals or signs that direct passengers on where to stand or sit to remain six feet apart from other passengers.

What Should Employers Do to Ensure Safe Business Travel for Workers?

Workers who must continue to travel in order to do their job are at an increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, particularly if their employers are not taking extra safety precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to the virus. If travel cannot be avoided, employers should consider the following safety guidelines to keep their employees safe and healthy:

  • Confirm that travel is essential. Employers should consider whether the business trip is essential, particularly if there are specific health orders in the state or county where the employee is traveling. Certain states require travelers to quarantine for 14 days on returning from out-of-state travel. That means that the employee will be required to work from home for two weeks or miss work if he or she cannot work from home. Therefore, if the trip is not absolutely necessary, employers should reconsider sending the employee, or delay the trip until travel is less of a health risk.
  • Make business travel optional. Even if there is a valid reason to consider a business trip essential, employers should consider making all travel optional, particularly for workers who are uncomfortable with the idea of traveling, who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, or who live with someone in a high-risk category. Employers who are not willing to give employees this option may face legal claims, including the following:
    • Workers’ Compensation claims if an employee becomes sick while traveling
    • Disability discrimination if an employee asks to avoid travel as a result of a medical condition
    • Whistleblower retaliation if an employee raised concerns about travel safety related to COVID-19
  • Prohibit workers from traveling if they show symptoms of COVID-19. Employers must prohibit any employee who has a fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, chest pains, or other symptoms related to COVID-19 from traveling. The employee should stay home for at least three days with no fever and improved respiratory symptoms, and a minimum of 10 days since the symptoms first appeared. If the employee tests negative for COVID-19 after recovering from the illness, he or she may return to work.
  • Provide employees with personal protective equipment (PPE). If any PPE is needed for safe travel, it should be provided by the employer. This may include face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and sanitizing wipes.
  • Choose transportation providers that make safety priority. Employers are urged to choose airlines that put a limit on passenger capacity for commercial flights, even if they charge more for tickets.
  • Review state and county public health orders. Different states may have different public health orders than others. For example, some states require wearing face masks in public and social distancing, while others permit people to enter stores without masks. Employers should find out what the orders are in the states where employees are traveling so that they are prepared to take appropriate precautions. If an employee is traveling to a state where there is an influx in cases, the company should consider cancelling the trip.
  • Take additional precautions when the employee returns from the trip. Companies should consider having the employee quarantine for a period on returning from a business trip, particularly if he or she traveled out of state or to a COVID-19 hot spot. Employers should also require the employee to get tested before returning to work and pay for the costs of the test and any out-of-pocket costs related to getting tested. Although the safest option is to prohibit any work-related travel, having a thoughtful travel policy in place can reduce the risk of employees becoming sick or spreading the virus to others.

Baltimore Workers’ Compensation Lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton Represent Workers Exposed to COVID-19

If you or a loved one was exposed to COVID-19 while traveling for work, do not hesitate to contact the Baltimore Workers’ Compensation lawyers at LeViness, Tolzman & Hamilton. If you tested positive for COVID-19 after traveling for work, we will ensure that you receive the maximum financial compensation you deserve for lost wages, medical expenses, and other costs associated with the illness. To schedule a free consultation, call us today at 844-556-4LAW (4529) or contact us online. Located in Baltimore, we serve clients throughout Maryland.