Writing Your Post-COVID Travel Policy

By Jessica Sillers

Election news may have dominated recent headlines, but Coronavirus updates aren’t far behind, and the outbreak continues regardless of political events. COVID-19 cases are on the rise throughout the United States, so businesses will have to adjust in response.

One place to start is your travel policy—especially if your business is one of the 40% without a written travel policy in place. Fluctuating case numbers and changing guidelines make it more important than ever to provide clear direction for workers in your company.

Navigate Legal Requirements

Even if your industry relies on travel to survive, a cautious approach can minimize your exposure to risk.

In some cases, employees may be able to apply for worker’s compensation if they contract COVID-19 while traveling for business. Some workers may also require ADA accommodations if their medical background puts them at higher risk (e.g., not traveling, even if this is typically part of their role). It may be worth adding any relevant disclaimers or guidelines to help employees understand what risks they take on by traveling, and where the business has a responsibility to offer accommodations.

As cases fluctuate, states may also change their requirements for incoming travelers regarding quarantine and other factors. A best practice for business travel may include checking coronavirus guidelines at your destination within a certain timeframe from booking or traveling. Expect that more travelers may need to or choose to cancel trips with relatively short notice as news updates or their own health changes.

Set New Booking Requirements

Limiting travelers’ exposure to possible infection could mean adding more restrictions to how you book business trips. Some businesses may decide it’s safest to minimize time spent in airports on layovers. Setting a policy to prioritize nonstop flights where possible can help meet this goal.

Where travelers stay once they reach their destination is also an important factor to consider. Corporate travel trends in recent years have seen an increase in sharing economy options, such as Airbnb. Sharing economy accommodations have been popular in corporate travel for cost savings and home-like amenities. They also often require less face-to-face contact than a hotel, which can be attractive during the pandemic. On the other hand, sharing economy hosts may or may not adhere to the same level of cleaning practices as a hotel. Consider whether to set supervisor approval requirements to increase oversight, especially as the news continues to evolve.

Once you have guidelines in place, check if you can set the defaults in your travel management software accordingly, or consider looking for a modern travel management platform that supports in-app policy parameters, so employees can easily search for flights and accommodation that meet your requirements.

Offer Personal Protective Equipment

You’re used to reimbursing employees for meals, a rental car, and lodging. Face masks and hand sanitizer may be new items to your approved expenses list. Laws in your state may require employers to reimburse work equipment, which may include supplies needed to travel safely. You may need to update your travel policy to add masks, gloves, sanitizing supplies, and similar items to your list of reimbursable expenses.

One question to clarify in your travel policy is who is responsible for covering any costs for COVID tests. If a negative test is required for business travel, and the employee would not otherwise have gotten tested, employees may be interested in whether the company will cover any associated costs. Check with your legal team and update your policy accordingly.

Your legal team may also need to draft any additional pre-travel documentation, such as a checklist of possible symptoms that could preclude an employee from going through with a business trip.

Set Tipping Guidelines

Generally, companies expect to reimburse reasonable tips as part of ordinary business travel expenses. But the standard for “reasonable” may have changed to acknowledge the additional risk service workers take on by receiving patrons during a pandemic. Some experts suggest that “25 to 30% is the new 15 to 20%” at restaurants.

Meals typically make up nearly 20% of business travel expenses. Increasing tips by 10% isn’t likely to break most businesses’ travel budget, but it’s a noticeable change, and one that may cause some confusion. It may be helpful to add a note in your policy outlining tipping expectations for sit-down restaurants, delivery service, bar service, or other typical situations.

Safety After Business Travel

Since March 2020, many businesses have found a balance of virtual and in-person work that fits their industry and company. As travelers navigate an evolving pandemic landscape in coming months, it’s important to consider their safety, as well as the health and safety of workers who aren’t traveling.

Travel increases potential for COVID-19 exposure, which can affect all employees. Every business needs to consult state guidelines and their own judgment about the best course of action. If it seems that a quarantine period makes the most sense, you’ll want to outline standard recommendations (e.g., travelers returning from destinations above a certain case threshold will work from home for 10 days or until they have a negative test result).

It’s difficult to say for sure what future months will hold in terms of doing business and managing pandemic response. The more guidance and clarity you can offer your employees, the more smoothly and safely you can transition into the appropriate amount of travel for the situation at hand.

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