The Government’s travel ‘green list’ was published on 23 July and includes the countries that are safe to travel to during the pandemic. It was revised on 4 August and now features Estonia, Finland, Greece, Greenland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Slovakia.
With the current surge in global numbers of people affected by the coronavirus, extreme measures have been recommended by most health organisations and governing bodies worldwide to help prevent further spread of the virus, one being to avoid foreign travel. Below is how to take on the challenge if an employee travels during Covid.
Can you travel during Covid?
Although official advice remains that the safest thing to do is not to travel abroad, publication of this list may mean more employees will now more than likely travel abroad. Given the heightened risk that foreign travel poses to workplaces and employers’ responsibilities under the Return to Work Safely Protocol, employers may attempt to restrict annual leave or insist upon further leave being taken before returning to the workplace
After initially stating that those in receipt of Pandemic Unemployment Payment would be disentitled to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment if they travelled abroad, the Irish government has since made a U-turn on this position on 29 July 2020.
The Minister for Social Protection announced that those in receipt of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment would be able to travel to another country on the green list, and non-green list countries in cases of ‘essential travel’. Similar to the current position regarding Jobseeker’s Allowance, where someone in receipt of PUP is travelling to a non-green list country for non-essential reasons, or they are leaving Ireland permanently, they will forgo their entitlement to the PUP.
- When do you need to notify your employer?
Although privacy around annual leave plans is expected in workplaces, Covid-19 has somewhat changed that. Some employers might now need to ask employees to confirm foreign travel plans. Even return-to-work forms, for example, require employees to outline any changes to personal circumstances and annual leave policies have been amended to make notification of planned foreign travel the rule rather than the exception.
Employers generally cannot refuse an annual leave request simply because an employee is going abroad on holiday. However, as current government advice is not to travel abroad, the overriding requirement for the employer to keep the workplace safe may impact on returning employees.
Although not encouraged, employees planning green list holidays are likely unaffected as they can return to work as normal immediately on their return. For those planning non-green list holidays, while the annual leave itself may not be refused, working location and pay may be affected.
- How will self-isolating after travel affect your wages?
Coming back to Ireland after visiting a country not on the green list requires individuals to self-isolate for 14 days. This means that an employee can’t go to work. If they can work remotely, they might be able to do that but that’s at the discretion of the employer.
However, where employees required to self-isolate cannot work remotely employers will typically be reluctant to pay employees who have effectively ‘brought this upon themselves’. This is particularly the case where the employer has warned employees in advance that self-isolation upon return from a non-green list country will not be paid.
In most cases, this period of restricted movement would also not qualify an employee for the Covid-19 Enhanced Illness Benefit payment, or any sick-pay entitlements offered by employers.
Last month, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued guidance to all civil and public-service employees stating that additional annual leave or pre-approved unpaid leave would be required for the 14-day period of restricted movement upon return from non-essential travel.
- What if the green list changes while you’re away?
The green list is currently being updated every two weeks, leaving a narrow window for change. If an employee is in a green listed country that is removed from the list while they’re visiting, the employee will need to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to Ireland.
Where the employee can work remotely, an employer may not have an issue with this, but where an employee cannot work remotely the employer should make clear in advance of the employee leaving that any change to the green list is at the employee’s own risk.
The basis for this is that the Government’s advice is that foreign travel is still not encouraged despite the green list being published.
- What do employers need to consider?
The key things companies must now consider include whether they will continue to pay salaries as normal when employees cannot work remotely while self-isolating, whether they will allow voluntary annual leave to cover the self-isolation period or whether they will impose a period of unpaid leave during self-isolation.
The most suitable option is dependent on the specific leave polices, the objective business needs and the risks identified in risk assessments by the employer. Of crucial importance, however, is that employees are made aware in advance of the potential repercussions for foreign travel that goes against public health advice and, where necessary, that employers update their policies to cover this.
In the end, employers need to decide the approach they’ll take to staff travel plans. If annual leave will be affected by the pandemic, it will need to be outlined clearly in the company’s Covid-19 response plan and communicated to all employees.
Government guidelines are changing frequently, therefore it is imperative that employers check the most up-to-date advice from the relevant government authority before implementing any particular approach.