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

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

Current CDC Guidelines for Travel, Testing, and Quarantine Periods

With respect to travel, in a press release issued on January 12, 2021, the CDC now recommends that viral testing be completed 1 to 3 days before an individual departs on their trip and that testing be conducted again 1 to 3 days before an individual returns home. For travelers entering the US after traveling abroad, a negative COVID-19 test 3 days before their return is not just a recommendation, but is a requirement for reentry into the country as of January 26, 2021.

The CDC further advises that individuals should get tested 3 to 5 days after travel and stay home for 7 days after their return. If an individual is unable to get tested, the CDC recommends that they stay home for 10 days instead to monitor if any symptoms arise.

What to do About Employees Traveling for Spring Break?

While the smile on an employee’s face before they go out on a week of PTO may make it obvious that a vacation is in their near future, the EEOC’s COVID-19 guidance FAQ notes that employers are entitled to inquire into the reason for an employee’s absence from work, including asking where they will travel (regardless of if the travel is personal). Therefore, there is no problem in asking why an employee is requesting time off in February or March (other than the jealousy it may induce).

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

Similarly, an employer has the right to have an employee work remotely during the post-travel quarantine period, if their job duties allow, or to require the employee to take an unpaid leave of absence (assuming they do not wish to use PTO to cover their time and have the right to decline to use it).

One caveat, however, is that an applicable Collective Bargaining Agreement may impose different requirements on an employer-mandated use of PTO, so employers should review any union contracts to make sure they are not inadvertently violating any applicable CBA.

What about testing?

As to requiring a negative test before returning to work, this would likely be something an employer can require: the same EEOC guidance FAQ discussed above notes that 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 that the 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 that individuals get tested upon a return from travel.

One additional note for Minnesota employers, however, is that if an employee is required by their employer to take a COVID-19 test, the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry has noted that the employer is obligated to cover the cost of the test or examination.

Bottom Line

As spring break season approaches, employers will need to balance their employee’s desire for fun in the sun with the company’s duty to maintain a safe and COVID-free workplace. In order to comply with current CDC travel guidelines, this may include having the employee out of the office for a longer period than their beach getaway.