Business travel may mostly be a waste of time, according to the management gurus. But it’s a fact of life for thousands of federal managers. That doesn’t stop just because there’s a pandemic fear hovering over the nation.
As a one-time road warrior with more than a million miles behind me, I know what it’s like. Airports and airliners, germ-wise, are like day care centers for adults. All that hacking, sneezing, snot blowing.
Now at least one federal employee called to ask whether you can refuse to go on an agency-related trip, citing the corona virus outbreak.
Short answer: No. If you are under orders to do, you’ve got to go. That’s according to longtime federal employment attorney Lynn Bernabei.
“If your job duties require travel … the answer is yes. They can force you to travel,” she said in my interview. That’s for normal business travel, not for specifically going to a high risk or infected area.
If you work in public health, medicine, or research and your work will put you in contact with infected people, you still have to go. But the agency is obligated to follow protocols for providing you with some sort of health protection. Bernabei said the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is a good place to check for the rules.
OSHA’s COVID-19 page says most people are at low risk. But for those who are at higher risk of exposure, employers must assess the hazards. You’d have to presume a CDC or an NIH agency would send people to hot germ zones equipped with whatever protective items they might need.
The travel questions might become moot. Cancellations are occurring left and right. For example, the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society, which attracts 10,000 people, has canceled. Not that the physicists were headed to Cambodia or China. This one was scheduled for Denver. Ditto for the CERAWeek conference in Houston. It’s about energy and it was to draw dozens of government speakers from all over, including EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
Airlines are also canceling or curtailing flights to certain overseas cities — Milan, Tokyo, Seoul, several places in China. That will likely shut down any international meetings otherwise planned for those places.
Domestic air travel so far is unaffected even as new corona virus instances dot more and more of the map. So if your agency says you gotta to, you gotta go.