The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines medium risk as being seated within six feet of a traveler with symptomatic laboratory-confirmed 2019-nCoV infection.
Image: CDC

As confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus hit 40,000, tech companies are revising travel policies and offering help to employees who may have been exposed to the virus.

Martin Ferguson, vice president of public affairs at American Express Global Business Travel, said the company is seeing an increase in clients stopping all nonessential business travel to, from and within Wuhan and mainland China. He said some clients are also limiting travel to the areas surrounding mainland China.

“Companies are understandably concerned and keen to protect the well-being of their traveling workforce, and we are seeing clients ask employees who have recently visited mainland China to work from home for two weeks as a precaution,” he said.

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has defined the risk of exposure for travelers on a plane with an individual who has contracted the coronavirus.

The CDC says a person in the same row as an infected traveler as well as people two rows ahead and two rows behind are considered at medium risk for developing the infection. Other travelers sitting more than six feet away have no risk of contracting the illness.

Some companies are requiring such employees to work remotely during the suspected incubation and transmission period of 14 days.

A spokeswoman from SAP said the company does not foresee any significant impact to the business in the near term.

“Because we are a technology company, we can abide by local policies and continue to operate virtually with colleagues and customers, if needed,” said Samantha Yerks. “The health and safety of our employees is our primary concern.”

Yerks said the company has made contingency plans, including working from home after a business trip to any affected area. SAP’s regional offices also are providing sanitizers, masks, and thermometers at reception.

SEE: Working remotely: A professional’s guide to the essential tools (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Help for employees in China

Jonathan Bernstein, chairman and founder of Bernstein Crisis Management, said he has clients with employees currently in China. He said the top priority should be to communicate with compassion.

“We have advised them to follow the excellent guidelines offered by WHO, CDC, the US State Department and Chinese Health Authorities,” he said.

Bernstein added that companies shouldn’t make decisions about quarantine or isolation.

“That direction would come from a health authority and hence the onus would be on that authority, not on the company,” he said.

KPMG China has 23 offices across 21 cities—including Wuhan—with around 12,000 partners and staff.

A KPMG spokesperson said that the company has been working with internal security and medical experts, and monitoring advice from WHO and the CDC. KPMG has revised travel policies based on this advice.

SEE: Coronavirus affecting tech firms as outbreak spreads (CNET)

“These include avoiding travel to affected areas, and self-quarantining for individuals travelling back from those areas,” the spokesperson said. “We are also working closely with our colleagues in China to provide whatever support they need.”

Revising existing travel policies

Emma Follansbee, an associate at The National Law Review, recommended three steps employers should take and three actions to avoid when addressing employee travel and the coronavirus outbreak.

Follansbee also wrote that the Occupational Safety and Health Act allows employees to refuse to work when there is a “reasonable belief that there is a risk of death or serious injury.”

  1. Provide education and information on the virus — Be brief and repeat what official sources have stated without adding information.The communication goal is to instill confidence in employees that the company is taking proactive steps as necessary
  2. Reinforce sick leave policies — The flu season has been worse than usual in the US with 10 million people contracting the illness. This is a good time to reiterate sick leave policies. Follansbee also recommends training managers to send people home if they are sick.
  3. Consider a temporary travel opt-out policy — Employers should consider temporarily suspending travel directly to a region with a high number of coronavirus cases. Follansbee also suggested that companies consider requiring employees traveling to or from the infected regions to refrain from reporting to work. Many employers are requiring such employees to work remotely at least through the suspected incubation and transmission period.

Here is Follansbee’s short list of what not to do when communicating with employees about the virus and revising travel policies.

  1. Don’t offer medical opinions and misinformation: Take a “less is more” approach.

  2. Don’t institute employee medical examinations and quarantines: Employers that isolate or quarantine employees when public health agencies have not yet done could be violating protections under the Americans with Disability Act, medical privacy laws, and state wage and hour laws.

  3. Don’t use selective enforcement of travel opt-outs: This policy must be applied equally across all employees. For example, employers cannot require pregnant or disabled employees to opt out of travel, while requiring other employees to continue traveling to a region.