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Can Employees Refuse to Travel Because of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

August 26th, 2020
travel covid-19

This is a difficult subject that employers and employees must grapple with as the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, spreads across America and worldwide. Corporations, such as Nestle, have canceled all global and most domestic travel for employees.

Nestle is not the only company to cancel domestic and international travel work for its employees, however. Employees need to know what they can do if their employer is effectively forcing them to travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are basic Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules to review so that workers know their rights regarding work travel during the pandemic.

What Does the OSHA Say About Work Travel Restrictions?

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to provide workers with workplaces free of known hazards that compromise the safety and the health of all workers. For safety reasons, workers also have the right to refuse work that would be considered dangerous by a reasonable person.

Traveling into a hot spot for the COVID-19 pandemic could be considered dangerous, and employers could look bad if they are forcing employees to travel to hot spots.

Is There a Clear-Cut Answer About Work Travel During the Pandemic?

There is no definitive answer in the OSH Act or anywhere in the legal zeitgeist for this issue; however, employers are told to be cautious regarding work-related travel. This means that employers can make travel decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Employers should consider what will happen when workers come back from these trips, and they should do everything they can to keep workers at home. Families and communities could be affected if someone needs to travel to a global or domestic hot spot for work, and the business could end up in the spotlight for forcing workers to travel during this dangerous time.

Can Employers Fire Employees for Refusing to Travel?

Employers could still potentially fire employees who refuse to travel because they feel the reasoning is not strong enough. This, however, would be a bad decision on the part of the company. That company can be taken to court and that employer could easily lose money and its public image in the process.

It is not practical to force workers to travel to hot spots when travel bans or advisories have been issued. For example, these advisories are in effect for Italy and China. The employee can easily show that they were forced to travel, even though the advisory was issued by the U.S. Department of State.

Are There Practical Considerations Regarding Work Travel?

A corporation could legally send an employee to a location that is not under a travel advisory and is not a hot spot. At the same time, that employee might have underlying medical conditions that make traveling much more dangerous for them. These workers might also have family members who would be put at risk if the virus was brought back to their home.

Since an employee can provide medical documentation of these conditions, it would be unwise for an employer to terminate or censure that employee if they refuse to travel. Corporations may need to look for other employees who are willing to travel or do not have underlying health conditions that could make COVID-19 that much more deadly for them.

A worker could also be caught up in quarantines that are put in place after they travel. For example, a worker that is sent to a foreign country could be forced to quarantine for 14 days or even longer because they came from the U.S. That worker might also be required to quarantine when they get home. The worker might even be barred from traveling back into America if the U.S Department of State issues more travel bans during the trip. If this happens, the employer has stranded an employee in a foreign country at great expense to the company and the worker’s family.

Another thing to remember is that employees can file a complaint under Section 11 of the OSH Act if they believe their employer is retaliating by firing or demoting them for not traveling due to COVID-19. The legal problems that this can create will cost the company a lot of money, and the case could waste even more time.

Should Endangered Employees File an OSHA Complaint?

Employees may not have all the documentation that they need to make their complaint compelling. This is why it is helpful to have an employment lawyer review the complaint. A lawyer that knows how to file these complaints can ensure that the complaint will be taken seriously and addressed as quickly as possible.

Since retaliation in the workplace is illegal under the OSH Act, employees can keep their jobs and avoid travel to unsafe places. There is no need to bargain with an employer when the law and public opinion seems to be on the side of the employee. At the same time, workers need to be prepared for backlash if they know their employer is not accommodating during the pandemic.

Why Should Travel be Limited During the Pandemic?

Employers should limit travel during the COVID-19 pandemic because they do not want to get into the legal haggling that will occur because of OSHA complaints, quarantines, and travel bans. Limiting travel prevents any rash decisions on the part of the business, and morale will increase across the company because employees know they will not be forced to travel to dangerous places.

When Should I Hire a Lawyer?

If an employer is forcing employees to travel during travel bans, it is advisable to contact a lawyer. Additionally, if an employee is encountering retaliation or wrongful termination because they are refusing to travel for work, a lawyer can address all of these concerns.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Work with Employees Who are Afraid to Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Speak to one of our Philadelphia employment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. when you are concerned about traveling for work due to COVID-19. You have rights, and we will represent you aggressively if you are taking steps to protect yourself and your family during this trying time. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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