by Robert McGarvey
The questions are tumbling in: Can my boss force me to travel in the age of coronavirus? And I have much more often heard the flipside: My employer has cancelled all employee travel but I want to go, in some cases to a conference, in the other on sales calls to a potential whale of a new customer – and how hard is that opportunity to ignore?
And if you go, you just may ride in a private plane!
Whoa, who saw this coming – but who saw the head of the Port Authority diagnosed with coronavirus?
First off: as for my plans I still have travel on my to-do list and I have no plans to cancel. But I have made no firm commitments to air, that is, I am hanging loose. My advice to all travelers is similar. Make bookings that can be cancelled easily, certainly that can be changed without fees (and many air carriers are offering that flexibility). Right now we are deep in the age of the unknowns so operate accordingly.
I will not tell you what to do however.
But can your employer? Should your employer? Should you listen?
Let’s tackle the easy question first. Probably an employer can in fact force an employee to travel, even in an era of coronavirus, but it would be unwise to force employees to go to, say, China or South Korea. Noted employment lawyer and Forbes contributor Tom Spiggle, “Employers need to think about how it will look when they are forcing employees to travel to countries that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of State warn people not to travel to.”
China is effectively a no per the US Dept of State, and South Korea isn’t much better.
In the New York Post, employment columnist Greg Giangrande tackles the question, can an employer force an employee to go to Italy which by the way is singled out for a CDC Travel Health Notice which says avoid all non essential travel. Giangrande’s advice: “Even if the chances of contracting the virus are remote, given the current travel restrictions and government advisories, you have every right to decline and not suffer any recrimination as a result. “
But here’s the deal: I am actually hearing more from employees who want to travel than from those who don’t – and yet a growing number of cautious employers are banning employee travel, from 21st century behemoths such as Amazon to legacy employers such as Ford. Part of the logic is that a traveling employee could pick up the virus – then infect the workpace when he/she returns.
But that employee could pick up the virus in the supermarket, at a movie theater, in a shopping mall, at a house of worship – the list goes on and it’s not only in travel that our chances of exposure rise. Yes, we have greater risks in many foreign countries (here’s the CDC data, here’s WHO’s). But coronavirus definitely is spreading in the US.
What do you do if your employer says stay at home?
Face reality: such policies usually aren’t hard and fast. If you have a chance for a face to face with a heavy hitter in Italy, say, or New York – and you are comfortable with the risks (and have researched the facts) – my advice is go to your boss, lay out the case for going, offer up a fallback if in fact you get infected (“I’ll self quarantine and will work at home for as long as it takes” – or whatever prescription will work in your company) and very probably you will get an okay to go.
My experience with companies, Fortune 25 and 15 person businesses alike, is that there are rules and then there are the exceptions. If you want to be the exception, come up with the argument, state it succinctly and you just may get the green light.
Don’t ask to go to conferences – they are on just about every company’s don’t lists. But a good sales call, an intimate meeting with a small group of heavy hitters, a potential merger or acquisition target – those remain reasons travel will be approved.
And maybe make a grab for approval of travel by private plane. Am I nuts? Know that many, many executives are fleeing common carriers in an age of coronavirus and flying private because it’s perceived as the healthier way to fly. Rates are up, but what price health?