Coronavirus (COVID-19), HR Management & Compliance

How to Handle Spring Break Travel in a COVID-19 World

After being cooped up for nearly a year because of COVID-19, many employees may be looking to take spring break getaways in the coming months. As is the case with most issues involving the pandemic, however, the travel opportunity creates several employment law concerns and considerations for employers to navigate.

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Current CDC Guidelines for Travel, Testing, Quarantine Periods

With respect to travel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends viral testing be completed one to three days before individuals depart on a trip and conducted again one to three days before they return home. For travelers entering the United States after traveling abroad, a negative COVID-19 test three days before their return isn’t just a recommendation—it’s a requirement for reentry into the country as of January 26, 2021.

The CDC further advises individuals should get tested three to five days after travel and stay home for seven days after their return. If they’re unable to get tested, the agency recommends they stay home for ten days instead to monitor for any symptoms.

What to Do About Employees Traveling for Spring Break

The smiles on employees’ faces before they go out on a week of paid time off (PTO) may make it obvious a vacation trip is in their near future. Nevertheless, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) COVID-19 guidance FAQ notes employers may inquire into the reason for their absence from work, including asking where they will travel (regardless of whether the trip is personal). Therefore, there’s no problem in asking why an employee is requesting time off this spring (other than the jealousy it may induce).

The less clear question, however, is whether you should require employees to quarantine or receive a negative COVID-19 test after their travel but before returning to the office. For employees electing to travel during the spring break period, you have the right to require them to follow any CDC-recommended quarantine period upon their return, including using any hours in their PTO bank to cover their absence, unless the relevant policy has language mandating otherwise.

Similarly, you have the right to assign employees to work remotely during the posttravel quarantine period (if their job duties allow) or require them to take an unpaid leave of absence (assuming they don’t wish to use PTO to cover their time and have the right to decline to use it).

One caveat: An applicable collective bargaining agreement (CBA) may impose different requirements on an employer-mandated use of PTO, so you should review any union contracts to make sure you aren’t inadvertently violating any relevant CBA.

What About Testing?

As for mandating a negative test before returning to work, this would likely be something you can require: The same EEOC guidance FAQ discussed above notes employers may “take screening steps to determine if employees entering the workplace have COVID-19 because an individual with the virus will pose a direct threat to the health of others.”

Further, the same guidance states the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) “does not interfere with employers following recommendations by the CDC or other public health authorities regarding whether, when, and for whom testing or other screening is appropriate.” As noted above, the CDC recommends individuals get tested upon returning from travel.

One additional note for Minnesota employers: If you require an employee to take a COVID-19 test, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has noted you’re obligated to cover the cost.

Takeaways for Employers

As spring break season approaches, you’ll need to balance your employees’ desire for fun in the sun with the company’s duty to maintain a safe and COVID-19-free workplace. To comply with the current CDC travel guidelines, you may have to keep them out of the office for a longer period than their beach getaway.

Grant S. Gibeau is an attorney with Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can reach him at ggibeau@felhaber.com.