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Months after business travel was expected to tick upwards following vaccinations and a slowing down of COVID-19 transmission, legal experts say the Delta variant could upend things once again.
“We are probably getting back to the point where we were in 2020,” said Carin Burford, shareholder at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart P.C. in Birmingham, Alabama, who helps companies manage safety issues and workers compensation. “The Delta variant is so much more contagious” than the initial strain that companies faced in the early days of the pandemic when business travel came to a halt.
A business insights report released Aug. 2 by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. found that corporate travel was expected to pick up “significantly” in the second half of 2021, but will still be well below pre-pandemic levels, with a third of 150 corporate travel managers surveyed saying they will likely remain below 25% of 2019 spending at the end of 2021.
The survey, conducted May 28 to June 10, found that the reopening of offices, “set to accelerate in the fall, if combined with sustained improvement in vaccination and infection rates, will provide a boost to domestic business travel in the last quarter of 2021.”
That sentiment has since reversed, some say, after vaccination rates stalled in June and July and COVID-19 cases surged in August.
“Employers are pulling back a little bit,” said Robert Robenalt, a partner with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Columbus, Ohio. “I think employers are erring on the side of being precautionary with their business dealings.”
Ms. Burford said employers should take into account whether their workers are vaccinated when it comes to travel, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has in place specific guidelines — which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration follows — that call for 7-10 days of quarantining post-travel for unvaccinated people.
“I would say no (travel) unless they are vaccinated; it’s not workable under the current guidance” for quarantines, she said, adding that employers should rethink nonessential travel, even for vaccinated in some cases. “Companies should ask, is the travel essential enough? Can they do it virtually or do they have to do it in person?”
Jeff Adelson, Newport Beach, California-based co-managing shareholder of Adelson McLean APC, said employers in states with COVID-19 workers compensation presumptions — such as California — ought to be especially cautious in proceeding with business travel, as the exposures to the virus while travelling and attending meetings and conferences can be greater, leading to comp liability.
“If someone is required to travel for their job and they are in a crowded airport and in meetings and it creates a greater likelihood of transmission than the general population, then I think that it would be a compensable claim,” he said.
Mr. Robenalt said much would be case-specific and state-specific, since injuries suffered during work travel typically open claims up to questions, such as whether the injury was suffered while the worker was engaged in work, or during downtime such as when a worker “deviates” from work travel to go to dinner or go on a personal errand. Introducing a contagious virus that is present virtually everywhere as a comp injury calls for greater scrutiny, with little legal precedent, he said.
“Proving that claim would be a challenge because it’s a difficult analysis where and how someone gets this disease,” he said. “There are a lot of variables there.”