Can I forbid employees from traveling during pandemic? Ask HR

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Special to USA TODAY

Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world's largest HR professional society.

The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor's answers below have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.

Question: I work for a nonprofit with sites in Florida and Texas, states where COVID-19 cases continue to rise. Our company has already mandated that employees wear masks while out in the field. However, we have been battling with what the organization can and cannot require after work hours. Can we restrict personal employee travel since they are frontline workers? – Anonymous

Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities are urging Americans to limit travel, you may not prohibit employees from traveling within the U.S. or to other countries. 

This may seem to contradict the guidance received by many workplaces from their local and state health departments, but it’s worth breaking down the “why.”

Many states have “off-duty” conduct laws. Simply put, these prevent employers from restricting an employee’s after-work activities – assuming such after-work activities are legal. 

Employers should encourage employees to remain cautious and mindful while traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That said, you can – and should – encourage employees to remain cautious and mindful while traveling. It could be a simple reminder, or, you could go so far as to advise against nonessential travel to known COVID-19 hotspots. After all, it’s not just about this one employee, but the rest of the company and perhaps your clients, too.

It’s also worth noting while an employer may be unable to prohibit an employee’s personal travel, they can establish firm safety policies and protocols that must be followed by employees within the workplace. This may include requiring employees to notify an employer of travel plans to a state or city that is considered a COVID-19 hotspot.

Or, if a traveling employee returns from a high-risk area, you could mandate they self-quarantine for 10-14 days before they return to work to keep themselves safe and protect their colleagues from potentially getting the virus. Other options include allowing an employee to work from home, if applicable, or have them use paid or unpaid leave until the incubation period has passed.

COVID-19 has certainly created a new set of challenges for employers, but no process or policy can possibly erase risk – at least not completely, anyway. Taking practical measures to safeguard the workplace and protect your clients can help prevent exposure without infringing on employees’ personal activities outside of work. 

I hope this helps, and I hope you stay safe!

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Q: My boss is organizing a team-building afternoon. The last time she tried to do this, I declined. I did not know that it was a 'work' thing. I was told she was disappointed that I didn't attend. I really don't want to go. Is there a way to politely decline, or if I have to attend, can I include this event on my timesheet? – Anonymous

Taylor: Thanks for writing. We’ve all faced work events we’d rather not attend and spend that extra time with family and friends instead – trust me, I know. But with more than half of the American workforce at home, many employers are trying to find new and creative ways to engage their staff and ensure teams stay connected.

Here’s the short answer: Sure, you could decline to participate in your work’s team building events. But what would this say about your attitude toward your job, boss, and team? Saying no could end up hurting your relationships with your manager or colleagues, and you may miss out on a key professional growth opportunity.

I want to emphasize your boss likely isn’t doing this to take time away from work or to simply schedule another meeting. Rather, managers put together team-building activities to foster a more inclusive environment and to create a stronger sense of community among your team.

Technically speaking, if you are an hourly employee required to attend meetings or other work-related events, you should be paid – and the rate of pay must be at least minimum wage. This time would also count toward overtime. You may want to check your employee handbook or talk to HR to clear up any confusion. 

If you truly do not wish to participate, you can respectfully talk about your feelings with your manager. You don’t mention what the team-building activity is, but if your reason for not attending is due to lack of comfort or even a medical reason, they may understand.

Ultimately, whether or not you choose to attend is up to you. However, at the end of the day, these activities are about your own professional development, and how you can better work with your team to reach your goals and improve the company’s bottom line.

Given how 2020 has changed the workplace, it can be hard to feel motivated and connected at work. I encourage you to not think of team-building exercises as a chore or another item on your to-do list, but a chance to make new connections, learn more about how your teammates think and work, and even have some fun!