Companies Cut China Travel Due to Coronavirus

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. January 29, 2020
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Alternating U.S. and Chinese flags on the sides of cargo shipping containers

​Companies have reduced travel to China following the outbreak of the coronavirus; are working with employees who are stuck in Wuhan, the epicenter of the infection; and are responding to U.S. employees who want to hunker down during the epidemic.

[SHRM Resource Spotlight: Communicable Diseases]

Travel Alerts Issued

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a Level 3 warning Jan. 27 recommending that all nonessential travel to China be avoided. Chinese health officials have reported thousands of cases throughout China, and Chinese authorities are imposing quarantines and restricting travel throughout the country, the alert noted.

The U.S. State Department issued a Level 4 warning Jan. 28 recommending no travel to Hubei, the province where Wuhan is located. Chinese authorities have imposed strict travel restrictions in and around Wuhan. Travelers should be aware that the Chinese government could prevent them from entering or leaving Hubei.

If individuals must go to China, they should, according to the CDC:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Discuss travel to China with their health care providers. Older adults and travelers with underlying health issues may be at risk for more severe disease.
  • Avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets and products that come from animals, such as uncooked meat.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

The CDC recommends that individuals who have traveled to China in the last two weeks and feel sick with fever, cough and/or difficulty breathing should:

  • Seek medical care immediately. Before going to the doctor's office or emergency room, they should call ahead and describe their recent travel and symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with others.
  • Not travel while sick.
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a tissue or their sleeve—not their hands—when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash their hands often.

Companies Halt Travel to China

An employee who went from China back to Germany with the coronavirus infected a colleague. The employee's company, Webasto, which has 11 sites in China, including in Wuhan, has banned travel to and from China for two weeks, Reuters reported.

General Motors, Ford and other U.S. companies have started restricting travel to Wuhan, CNBC reported. Honda Motor and PSA Group withdrew employees working around Wuhan last week.

Facebook told staff to avoid traveling to China, acting "out of an abundance of caution" to protect workers, the BBC reported. In addition, South Korean home appliances company LG has instituted a ban on travel to China.

Airlines are canceling flights to China. British Airways announced Jan. 29 that it has suspended all direct flights between Great Britain and China, CNN reported.

Some Employees Remain in China

Employers should be flexible with workers who cannot leave Wuhan or choose to remain in China, said Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP, an independent consultant with FiveL Co. in Westminster, Md.

"Employers might look to their policy related to nonmedical or personal leave of absence, if any, and give the employee as much flexibility as possible," she said.

"If the employer has no related policy, consider past practice," she added. "Can you think of a time an employee had to take an extended period of time off from work for personal reasons—for example, for an ill family member? If so, what did you do? Consider giving this employee a comparable and equitable amount of flexibility."

If the employee abroad is exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, there might be Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) implications if the employer is covered by the FMLA, she added. This could be the case particularly once the employee returns to the U.S., as federal U.S. employment laws, including the FMLA, generally apply only to those employees who work in the United States or its territories.

The common cold and flu are not FMLA-covered serious health conditions unless complications arise that lead to a temporary incapacity of more than three consecutive calendar days. Howard Mavity, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Atlanta, noted that the new coronavirus is not a flu strain but a pneumonia-like infection.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]

Chinese law regulates sick time closely, and most companies have a specific process for applying for sick leave, said Bonnie Puckett, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Atlanta and head of the firm's Asia-Pacific practice. "Check your policies and make sure you are aware of what they are, and possibly recirculate them," she said.

Increased Telecommuting

Telecommuting requests may rise in response to the coronavirus, particularly near where there have been reported cases. Cases have been reported in Chicago; Los Angeles County, Calif.; Maricopa County, Ariz.; Orange County, Calif.; and the state of Washington.

What do employers do if employees in these areas want to telecommute when the employees normally don't work remotely?

If employees are in areas where there have been known cases of coronavirus and may have to use public transportation to and from work, telecommuting is a reasonable option if the worker's job allows it, said Joyce Chastain, SHRM-SCP, president of Chastain Consulting in Chattahoochee, Fla.

Mavity said there are three considerations in determining whether to permit an employee to telecommute because they're scared of the coronavirus outbreak. First, does telecommuting satisfy the employer's needs?

"Second, nothing alienates employees faster than evidence that the employer does not care about their safety. For morale and cultural reasons, an employer may choose to be more generous about telecommuting and may need to indicate that the outbreak presents unusual circumstances," he said.

Last, the employer must consider potential legal claims. The Occupational Safety and Health Act whistleblower protections let an employee refuse work assignments only when the worker has a reasonable fear.

Some employees may be immunosuppressed or have other conditions that may make telecommuting during the outbreak a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, he added.

"Employers are, out of an abundance of caution, having employees who traveled to and from Wuhan, China, work at home for the first two weeks after they return," said Katherine Dudley Helms, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Columbia, S.C. "This may be more of an issue of employee morale than it is necessity. That said, things are changing so rapidly that I believe employers are being cautious."

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