HR and the Business of Workforce Travel

COVID-19 staffing

Does the pandemic change a company’s duty of care responsibilities? Will it drive increased employee awareness and questions about their employer’s duty of care preparedness? How should human resource leaders plan, prepare, and protect the future of business travel? These are serious questions for an extraordinary time.

Human capital management leaders, employers, and workers are planning how they will emerge from total shutdown to an incremental, safe return to domestic and international business trips. Duty of care generally requires every employer to provide employment that is reasonably safe for their employees by providing safeguards to protect their life, health, and safety.

The courts in many countries, including the US and UK, have ruled that companies have a duty of care to protect their travelers from unreasonable risk of harm. Business travelers are vulnerable to medical, accident, natural disaster, and security risks on every continent, including the risk of coronavirus infection. Failing to meet duty of care requirements could mean significant liability for employers.

PREMIUM CONTENT: Coronavirus Playbook for US Staffing Firms

By way of example, the surviving family of a Lucent Technologies employee filed a duty of care lawsuit following his death subsequent to a surgical procedure in Saudi Arabia. The court upheld claims that Lucent breached its duty of care when it provided a substandard response and inadequate access to medical evacuation. Failure to protect its employee with a reasonable safety net resulted in substantial legal costs, an undisclosed settlement, and damage to the company’s reputation.

If you think the probability of a business traveler being subjected to such an experience is low then consider that 65% of travelers to the developing world report a medical problem during their trip, according to the 2019 International Travel Health Guide. The US State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs reports almost 10,000 US citizens suffered fatalities from non-natural causes while traveling internationally during the latest recorded 10-year span.

Workers’ comp. One other frequent notion is workers’ compensation insurance covers work-related travel. Not always. Depending on a company’s policy, independent contractors, volunteers, executive officers, and even owners may not be covered.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the near-term future of work-related travel. Employers, HR professionals, and employees should be examining the rigor of their current duty of care capabilities to make certain they include:

  • Robust travel risk management plans and specific emergency action plans (EAPs)
  • Assignment of responsibility for fulfilling the organization’s duty of care
  • Assessment and monitoring the organization’s travel risk profile
  • Implementation of a system to inform, track and communicate with travelers
  • Retention of resources to provide medical, security, crisis, evacuation and other critical response services
  • Education of employees and travel service providers
  • Ability to track and assess incidents

Most companies don’t have the understanding, experience, and personnel to satisfy their duty of care responsibilities and therefore should secure assistance from travel risk experts, medical and security specialists, evacuation providers, and outside legal counsel with expertise in employment and travel law.  The pandemic has put a spotlight on and raised the bar for duty of care requirements.