Companies are used to communicating with their travelers about dangers on the road, from the commonplace to the extreme.
But one issue that has been getting a lot of attention lately is a little more thorny to discuss: the Zika virus, which has spread since last year through Latin America, the Caribbean and recently reached the continental U.S. with locally transmitted cases in the Miami area.
That’s because the mosquito-borne illness is most threatening to women who are pregnant, their partners, or couples who intend to start a family soon — not all of whom may be interested in broadcasting their family-planning status to their bosses.
“That crosses the line of questions you’re not supposed to ask,” said Kathy Bedell, senior vice president of BCD Travel, a travel management company.
While the virus does not appear to be curtailing business travel, risk management experts say employers need to take Zika seriously — and make sure workers know they can skip travel without consequences in places where it is spreading. Because infection can cause fetal brain damage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika is being actively transmitted by mosquitoes, and that women and men who have visited such an area wait eight weeks before trying to conceive if they have no symptoms. Men who show symptoms are advised to wait six months.
“In some cases it’s going to be pretty tricky because you’re dealing with pretty sensitive information that you may or may not want to have,” said Tim Daniel, executive vice president at International SOS. “But you want to at least be able to allow the traveler to opt out and make the right choices.”
Daniel spoke about the virus and its impact on business travel as part of a webinar offered in August by the Global Business Travel Association.
Colleen Gallagher, the association’s communications director, said in an email that the GBTA risk committee chose the topic because it was in the news and important to the industry — but not necessarily because there had been a lot of questions on the topic.
“Surprisingly, given how much Zika is in the headlines, we have gotten very few questions on it and heard very little about people changing their programs,” Gallagher wrote in an email. She said travel programs are already likely have procedures in place for dealing with health-related issues.
Dr. Robert Quigley, senior vice president at International SOS and regional medical director for the firm’s Americas region, told Skift that he has not seen the type of reaction he expected.
“Although there should be more concern, there should be more attention focused on a workforce — a mobile workforce, in particular — by any corporation that has workers that are traveling to or living in endemic areas, there’s not,” he said.
In addition to the GBTA, travel management companies and groups that represent meeting and convention planners say the threat of the virus is not causing many companies to pull back on travel or change plans.
In a recent interview with Skift, Ingrid Rivera, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, said 35 groups representing 42,000 room nights had canceled upcoming events — but another 57 groups had been confirmed in the same time. Puerto Rico has more than 10,000 Zika cases.
Bedell, who sits on the GBTA’s risk committee, said among her clients, no companies are calling off travel altogether.
“There’s not a panic; there’s an awareness,” Bedell told Skift. “There’s an education. There’s communication going on.”
In addition to communication, companies that have offices in places where Zika is a threat should be doing what they can to keep employees safe, Quigley said. That could include making sure workplaces are appropriately fumigated, getting rid of mosquito breeding grounds, educating workers on using repellent, and giving people the option to relocate or avoid traveling there in the first place. While the only cases of active transmission in the continental United States are in Miami-Dade County, health officials have said they expect Zika to spread in Gulf states including Texas and Louisiana.
Once the CDC and World Health Organization announced that there was enough evidence to name Zika as a cause of fetal brain defects including microcephaly, the virus became a “foreseeable risk,” Quigley said. And that put employers on notice that they could be held liable if they forced an employee to travel to a so-called Zika zone and that employee got sick and had a bad outcome from the illness.
“I’m always telling companies that your C-suite, your HR, they need to be sending these messages to everybody and they need to know there will be no repercussions,” Quigley said. “It makes for a difficult scenario, and I feel badly for those young men and women who are in that predicament. Nobody wants to potentially jeopardize their career development by declining an assignment in an area that’s affected.”
But adding to the careful line employers must walk is this consideration: Because of anti-discrimination laws, they cannot prohibit pregnant women from traveling to locations with the virus. In a post on the subject, the Society for Human Resource Management said any travel restriction would have to be applied across the board.
During the GBTA webinar last month, Daniel said companies with employees around the world should also consider how workers who live outside the Americas might feel about traveling into an area where the virus is being transmitted.
“How are we addressing their concerns? Because they’re going to have a unique perceptive sitting in the UK or Singapore about what’s happening in Miami,” he said. Since that session, Singapore has experienced its own outbreak — just one example of how quickly information is changing when it comes to the illness and how complicated it is to keep track of where travelers can go without worrying.
“If you think about Zika, those countries are generally safe aside from Zika,” Daniel said. “Zika introduced a new type of travel restriction, or at least travel guidance.”