A corporate executive recently had a pressing question for employment lawyer Jonathan Segal. Could he go on a long-planned vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina?
The executive, it turned out, was less concerned about catching COVID than he was about would happen when he returned to his home in Philadelphia. That’s because Pennsylvania has imposed a 14-day quarantine on those arriving from a growing number of other states—including North Carolina. The executive wondered whether his employer could prevent him from taking the trip, or if he’d have to avoid returning to the office afterwards.
Segal, a partner at the firm Duane Morris, says he is receiving more and more such inquiries from executives concerned about legal—and ethical—issues tied to travel.
The issue is especially troublesome in the northeast where a tri-state alliance of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have required many out-of-state visitors to either self-quarantine or furnish evidence of a negative COVID test. As of Wednesday, the list of states affected numbered 33 with several new states added and one state—Delaware—getting added again after being previously removed.
Meanwhile, it is not just states imposing quarantine rules on visitors. The city of Chicago has issued an order requiring such measures on those arriving from 17 states.
For now, all of these orders amount to advisories rather than formal laws and—aside from the occasional questionnaire for in-bound air travelers–there has been little in the way of enforcement. While the governor of Connecticut this week pledged to add a $1000 fine for violators, the reality is most people can flout the orders with few repercussions beyond, perhaps, a guilty conscience.
For corporate leaders, however, the out-of-state quarantine orders can carry more consequences—especially as a growing number of offices begin to reopen. According to Segal, failure to abide by the orders could leave employers open to accusations of negligence in the event they experience an outbreak.
So far, though, it appears companies have been slow to issue formal policies. Employees at several well known companies contacted by Fortune—including those at a tech giant and a financial firm—said they had not received any corporate guidance about travel.
For those that do implement COVID travel policies, there are several potential pitfalls. For instance, a company that outright forbids employees from traveling to states like Florida or Texas, which are suffering major outbreaks, could violate labor laws. That’s because states like New York and Colorado forbid employers from punishing workers for out-of-work activity that is otherwise legal.
And as attorneys Joseph McNelis III and Samuel Haaz note in a blog post, companies must be wary of banning travel to destinations popular with those of specific race or sexual orientations—doing so could be a violation of federal civil rights law.
There are also more subtle considerations for managers to consider as they decide how to respond to the mushrooming COVID quarantine rules. According to Segal, executives’ travel choices—and willingness to abide by quarantine rules—are important in terms of establishing a culture of safety in the workplace. He argues it is especially important for executives and HR managers to resist telling employees to abide by states’ COVID advisories, while ignoring themselves.
“Those who draft policies must also comply with them—a double standard can create culture and health problems in the workplace,” he says.
As for the executive planning to visit the Outer Banks, his company adopted a policy requiring those who visited affected states to quarantine for 14 days—leading the executive to thank Segal for the legal advice, but also tell the lawyer he owed him a vacation.
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