my company held a retreat in a Zika zone — and is charging people who didn’t go for their plane tickets

A reader writes:

My company recently had their retreat in Miami, Florida. As you can imagine, there were several women who voiced concerns about having the retreat in an area that the CDC has actively discouraged women from traveling to because of Zika. Unfortunately, the company decided to move forward with the retreat location because they had made a down payment on the hotel that they were unable to get back.

Three women on my team ultimately made the decision not to attend. We returned from the trip this week, and yesterday all three of them received an invoice from Accounting for the price of their flight. Apparently, the company bought them flights and HR said that since they decided not to go, the company wouldn’t eat the cost of the flight and that they had to pay for it.

Obviously, this is insane and borderline illegal. When the three women went to talk to HR about the situation, the HR director aggressively told them that this was the company’s policy (though it was not written anywhere) and if they had a problem with it, they could go talk to the CEO about it.

As the manager of these people (and a man), I’m wondering how I should offer support. I’m infuriated at how they are being treated. This is pretty blatant pregnancy discrimination as they were penalized for making a decision based on their intent to become pregnant. I told them that I would support them in whatever way I can, but I’m not sure they know how best I can support them.

I asked employment lawyer Donna Ballman, author of the excellent Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired and who also happens to practice in Florida, to weigh in here. She says:

Here’s the problem I see with all this: CDC advised pregnant women not to travel to Miami, not all women. The only thing the CDC has said about women in general who travel to Miami is to wait at least 8 weeks before becoming pregnant. Indeed, the CDC also advised men who were planning to get pregnant in the near future (poor wording but I assume they meant men who are planning to impregnate someone in the near future) avoid nonessential travel to Miami. So a refusal to travel to Miami may not be protected activity for women who were not pregnant or about to become pregnant (such as someone who had an artificial insemination scheduled or who was actively attempting to get pregnant).

Pregnant employees and both male and female employees planning to become pregnant should have been accommodated. For pregnant women, this would likely be considered pretty blatant pregnancy discrimination. For the employees planning to become pregnant in the near future, since the travel advisory applies to men and women, it probably isn’t sex discrimination (but maybe there’s an argument here for pregnancy discrimination). If there are pregnant employees in the company, then company travel to a red zone is a serious risk for that employee since other employees could come back with the Zika virus and transmit to them. The company could have liability if this occurred.

I do have a concern about demanding reimbursement for flights that weren’t taken. First of all, did they warn the women who declined to attend that this would happen if they didn’t go? If not, that seems unfair to do a gotcha after the fact. There could also be some Fair Labor Standards Act issues with making the women repay if the repayment takes them below minimum wage. I also wonder if there have been similar situations where males were unable to attend travel-related events who were not required to repay the airline cost. I’m also guessing that the company only ate part of the ticket cost, and probably could cancel with a penalty instead of the entire ticket price, so requiring the women to pay full price is punitive and profit-making for the company.

Overall, I think it’s a poor decision on the company’s part because it could have a negative impact on morale and give the impression that the company doesn’t care about its female employees.

Since I live in South Florida, I definitely understand Zika panic. However, before you refuse to attend a mandatory company function in any disease-prone area, get all the facts, get them right and discuss the issue with HR so you understand the consequences of not attending. That way you can make a fully informed decision.

So there’s the legal analysis. But of course, aside from what the law does and doesn’t cover, there’s the question of what’s right and reasonable.

As the manager of the people who were impacted by this, there are actions you can take totally aside from the legal considerations. One thing you can do is to advocate on your employees’ behalf: Speak to HR — and then if necessary, someone above HR — and say that you’re deeply concerned about the morale impact this will have not only on your three employees who didn’t attend, but on others who are seeing how they’re being treated. Say that it’s not fair or reasonable or good management to ask employees to pay for business flights they didn’t take, point out that you (presumably) don’t require people to reimburse airline tickets if they’re unable to go on a business trip for other reasons, and say that the company is creating potential legal issues around pregnancy discrimination and generally just making itself look jerkish to employees. Say that you feel strongly that the company shouldn’t move these costs to employees.

If HR stonewalls you, go over their heads. If people from other teams are in the same boat, enlist their managers to speak up with you.

Sometimes companies attempting to do jerk-ish things will reverse course if people object loudly enough. Not always, but enough of the time that it’s worth a shot.

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

{ 440 comments… read them below }

    1. paul*

      Amen. A one day event during business hours once or twice a year? OK, fine, w/e.

      A multi day leave my family event? Eeeew.

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      Seriously. I adore my coworkers, but I need down-time. A retreat sounds like an absolute nightmare.

      1. Catalin*

        Exactly! You want to have a board meeting? Grand: let’s do it but locally. If you want to have a board meeting AND work on your tan, do one and then the other. If you want your employees to ‘have a little fun’, give them more vacation time or offer travel benefits. Jeepers guys, your employees don’t want to go golf/sunbathing with you!

    3. MCR*

      I love my company retreat. I work for a small company (25 total people) and the retreat gives us a chance to review business from the past year, set goals for next year, learn about new things in our field that our co-workers specialize in, and have fun with each other (it’s worth noting that the “fun” time outside of the business meetings is not mandatory, but most people go and enjoy it anyway). Sometimes participants on this site have a really knee-jerk “no” reaction to any outside-of-working-hours events, so I feel it’s important to point out that some people do actually enjoy such events and they can positively contribute to business goals.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Totally agree. I wish my company had a retreat. They’re a great way to tackle big-picture strategy items and make relationships across departments, especially as companies get more fragmented and decentralized.

      2. Alton*

        I’m sure it’s fun, but I think with multi-day, out of town retreats, there’s a real risk of unconvincing people whose flexibility or finances are limited. That’s fine if it’s pretty optional, but with truly mandatory events, I think care should be taken.

      3. YawningDodo*

        My knee-jerk “no” to a multi-day trip would be mostly because I’m a homebody who loves her routines. Breaking my own routine for an evening to go do something fun I’ve planned for myself is hard enough without breaking it for days on end for something mandatory someone else decided I should attend. I’ve gone on business trips, but if it’s not something that’s strictly necessary I’m likely to resent having to arrange for pet care and leave behind my usual evening activities more than I am to enjoy the retreat.

      4. Koko*

        Same! My company is spread out around the world, and I have coworkers who I communicate closely with every day and the only time I get to see them face to face instead of through vcon is our annual retreat. I would say about half of the speakers they line up for the all-staff sessions are truly inspiring, and then we have all these breakout sessions you can choose from where we can develop our professional skills (leadership seminars, public speaking classes, storytelling workshops) or learn more about what other departments in the company besides our own are doing. There are lots of optional “fun” activities after-hours that are well-attended, which range from “excursions” to see local sights and activities, to dinners and late-night dance parties. There is a lot of alcohol consumed and yet there are never any behavioral problems! A lot of people spend their down time on their own, in their room or visiting the hotel spa or hanging out by the pool. I’m sure not *everyone* loves it but pretty much everyone I know at the company looks forward to it every year.

        1. Connie*

          Your retreat is clearly very smartly planned, by people who know how to both maximize the professional gain for their employees and allow those employees enough choice in activities/free time to ensure that the trip is actually enjoying.

          However, all retreats are not created equal. Some employers don’t plan as well as yours do. And it probably helps a LOT when many of the coworkers there aren’t the same ones you spend time with every single day already.

          Tl;dr – Retreats are only as good as their planners.

          1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

            I think this is where I fall as well.

            I am sure some retreats provide great benefit to companies. The company retreats I have been on have not had that effect. I sat through a few good speakers, a lot of bad ones, watched people I didn’t know win awards, and hid in my hotel room for the remainder to get away from co-workers who were too drunk to behave themselves after the brass went to bed (or went all-out in one case).

    4. No, please*

      Agree! My first adult job had a trip to Las Vegas for the staff. I was 19 so I couldn’t gamble or drink. I tried to explain why this trip wasn’t for me. We didn’t have any work related things to do in Vegas, plus it was less than a year after 9/11, so no one wanted to fly yet. The boss just wanted to go and that was that.

        1. KitCroupier*

          Sure but if all your coworkers are drinking and gambling, then you are left out. Which defeats the purpose of a group activity.

          1. No, please*

            Yeah. It’s also not a safe city to wander around in alone as a young woman. I had a decent time but couldn’t afford it and didn’t feel comfortable sharing a room-and bed!-with my manager.

            1. Gaia*

              Eh, it isn’t that bad. I’ve had lots of trips to Vegas and almost all of them have included me (as a young woman) wandering alone at some point. I take the same precautions I would take in any large city. No more, no less.

              1. No, please*

                Yes, share a bed with my manager, if that’s what you mean. Plus a third coworker stayed in our room.

              1. No, please*

                I felt unsafe the whole time. I’ve since been diagnosed with anxiety. But who wouldn’t be anxious about sharing a bed with a drunk manager?

                1. Koko*

                  Oh my gods, I can barely sleeping when I’m sharing a bed with a date or close friend that I *want* to! I would have slept on the FLOOR and pretended I do this all the time at home for my “bad back.” You poor thing.

              2. Liane*

                Yes, real WTF. But not the first time this has come up here. Alison once answered a question from someone who had to share a bed with a coworker! And another about a manager who thought that OP should be okay sharing a hotel room with a complete stranger at a conference.

                1. Liane*

                  And just noticed the “drunk” detail. I. Need. Brain. Bleach.
                  My sympathies to all the HR and legal department people reading this for the nightmares they will surely have.

            2. BRR*

              What?!?! That’s awful. To require a “fun” retreat and you have to share a bed with your manager not only takes away any fun but turns it into a huge punishment.

            3. Queen Anon*

              I lived there; it’s just like any other large city. Just use your common sense. (Also, you’re more likely to be surrounded by people and very likely to be on camera – always in the casinos and even outside. In some ways that made me feel safer. I was still careful and observant, though.)

              1. No, please*

                I hadn’t done any alone city exploring at that age so it was just overwhelming. I understand now that’s not any less safe than the large city I live in now.

        2. DragoCucina*

          Yes, one of our librarians doesn’t drink or gamble and Las Vegas is one of her favorite cities. The exhibits, Red Rock Canyon, The Valley of Fire, etc.

    5. I used to be Murphy*

      Right? My husband has one coming up that takes him to a different country for 6 nights. He also travels a lot for work as it is, so his bosses making him do yet another week away from home seems just thoughtless. It’s one more week that I have to leave work early every day to get the kid and cut into my productive time (or do more work at night after my kid goes to sleep so I can stay on top of my own job).

    6. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      I always feel like chiming in when this comes up, because there seems to be consensus among commenters here that company retreats are bad or everyone hates them.

      I don’t hate them. I think they’re valuable, especially in an organization in which not everyone works together in the same office. Some of my best planning and learning has happened at org-wide retreats, and I’m grateful for the time and space to have done that.

      1. Liz2*

        As everything, it really depends on the context and culture of the company. A company who plans a retreat should already know that is a good fit for them and the employees. A company which is planning a retreat to somehow MAKE it a good fit…sadly that’s a too common occurrence. Managers and company owners are rarely good at event planning which takes into consideration the myriad of personal and individual needs- and even the fact that knowing such things could be an invasion of privacy.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          That’s a really good way of putting it. It’s nice to see there’s some companies that appear to get it right. But there seems to be way more that get it oh so wrong.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        MCR noted this, too.

        I don’t think it’s that company retreats are bad ideas or suck. I think people take issue with how they’re conducted, both with respect to geography and to content. If folks wanted to do an “in-area” retreat that takes place in a location other than the office (to get us in a retreaty mindset), but not so far away or inaccessible that folks can’t return home at night, then I think a retreat can accomplish valuable organizational goals while being sensitive to employees’ needs. It’s also (usually) way cheaper than having to pay for everyone’s travel + room/board.

        Similarly, I’ve been to retreats that are just poorly planned/facilitated, so being in the retreat feels like a huge time suck that takes away from other pressing or urgent work demands. But when a retreat is really well thought out and facilitated, it can be the best “all company” event that year.

        I find that organizations that insist on overnight retreats often claim it’s necessary for team-building or to take people out of their office mindset. I’m sympathetic to the latter (although, again, I think it’s possible to find a nearby location and to hold the retreat during standard business hours). I’m not sympathetic to the former (team building or “trust-building”) because if you have to have a separate retreat to do this, something is really wrong with how the organization is running—either managers aren’t managing unprofessional employee conduct—allowing a destructive work culture to flourish—or folks “up top” are creating that destructive environment. Neither of those problems can be resolved by a retreat.

        1. Koko*

          In our case local retreats are impossible because we have offices in a half dozen countries, plus about a dozen cities in the US. The retreat locations tend to be somewhere between the two biggest US offices, but no matter where we pick, there’s going to be travel and overnighting involved. Pretty much everyone at the company works closely with at least one person from a different office and it’s the one time a year we get to see each other face to face.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            That’s fair. The way we dealt with this when I was at an organization with offices super far apart is that we rotated host cities (instead of picking a halfway point). Employees seemed to grumble less if they knew that at least every other year they could attend the retreat from their “home base.”

            The only time I’ve seen this really backfire is when the division was not equal. For example, I worked at an organization with it’s headquarters about 300 miles away from its field office. Significantly, comparably “senior” managers were in both locations—the Exec. and Associate Directors were based in the field office, but the Legal and Development directors were based at hq.

            Even though there were more employees at the field office and it was a significant burden for them to always have to come to hq, the staff at hq pretty much refused to ever come to the field office. The Exec Director finally decided to rotate the retreat between the field office and hq, but the hq staff were so rude and obnoxious that the E.D. essentially capitulated because she was sick of their whining, which pissed off the field office staff because they always did what they were asked without complaining. It was ugly, broke down work relationships, made it harder for the two offices to work together, and from what I can tell, never really resolved.

      3. Turtle Candle*

        Yep. My team is very scattered, geographically, and I really value our trips for a chance to spend time with teammates. Usually there’s a fun element too–one year we went to Disneyland on the company dime during a retreat. (Yes, I know that not everyone likes Disneyland, but we all did.)

  1. Kyrielle*

    But…if they’d gone…the company would still have spent that money, and presumably considered it good. I get that the company didn’t get the benefit from it, but the company also knew they didn’t want to go and didn’t back out the _hotel_ cost was committed. So they went ahead and committed the airfare cost after, for the employees who were saying they did not want to attend there?

    1. Justin*

      And you can figure out a way to get vouchers for future travel or something, it’s not just a black hole of sunk cost. This i s just the company being jerky out of spite or something.

      1. Catalin*

        Yes, I smell spite in the air. I know nothing about the actual circumstances, but I feel like this may have happened:
        Big Boss: Yes, Miami. (I wanna get some sun)
        Assistant: Sir/Ma’am, some of our employees have concerns about the Zika issue.
        Big Boss: Whatever. Miami. *goes to Miami*
        Someone in Miami: Hey boss, too bad A, B, and C couldn’t make it. Damn Zika, huh?
        Someone else in Miami: Oh yeah, well crap. We didn’t think about that. We shouldn’t have chosen a Zika location when we knew it would exclude people.
        Big Boss back in office: *growls* A, B, and C not coming because of Zika ruined my fun.

  2. Calallily*

    I normally don’t condone this but if all else fails, go to the media. The company would probably immediately backtrack the demands and claim it was just a misunderstanding.

    While the travel advisory applied to pregnant women – we all know how pregnancy works. You don’t get a phone alert the second pregnancy is set in motion… any one of them COULD’VE been pregnant if they were trying to conceive. It also seems an unfair burden on any staff member for them to delay family planning for 2 months because of a company trip.

    If I was made to pay for airline tickets like this, I would lose my savings and go deeper into debt.

    I’d also advise the women to seek a lawyers opinion… there is a chance payroll could illegally deduct this amount from their paychecks and swift action from a lawyer would be necessary.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      O/T, but someone has got to be considering how to connect pregnancy tests to your phone. Download the app, pee on a stick, get an alert. (The stick could be wifi enabled or usb plug in to your phone).

      1. Kyrielle*

        Why? It wouldn’t speed up the results, it would just add cost and technology. (And would anyone be willing to plug such a stick into anything, let alone a phone? I mean, it’s been peed on.)

        The big delay is that hormone levels have to rise enough for it to be detected, which can take 1-3 weeks after conception. Depending on teh woman’s cycles, that could mean they’d have to get on the plane not knowing if they were then pregnant or not.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I was mostly joking around, but a product like that wouldn’t be for the benefit of the woman, it would benefit the pregnancy test company in gathering data and selling a list or marketing to her for other products.

          You don’t pee on the end that goes in your phone. : )

          Back when I was TTC, I bought a bulk pack of the cheapest tests I could find, which were basically paper color-change strips, but that was 2003.

          1. Wendy Darling*

            Over/under for how long it takes someone to develop a smart toilet that sends you a notification if you’re pregnant?

            1. Trig*

              Nooooooooo don’t let the IoT people hear you! A smart toilet! Ahhhh I can just imagine it! Tracks your hydration, fibre, iron, estrogen, and testosterone levels, knows when to clean itself, automatically releases scent in case of #2, detects any bits of TP residue left on your nethers and activates the bidet to clean you up, automatically rewards children for using the potty, scolds dogs and cats for trying to drink or play in the bowl… Any features I’m missing?

            2. MsCHX*

              I read recently about Target being so in-tune with women’s purchases that they’ve accurately “predicted” pregnancy based on shopping habits.

              1. vpc*

                They goofed with me! I always purchase diapers, onesies, and breastfeeding support items as baby shower gifts. One year I went to so many baby showers – three or four in the space of six months – that they (Target) sent me a “congratulations on your new arrival!” coupon pack.

                I thought it was hilarious.

        2. Blue Anne*

          Because technology is fun! :D

          I’m on a kickstarter for a wifi enabled menstrual cup. It’s supposed to have some nice benefits like tracking how much flow I have and reminding me to empty it and stuff but honestly, I just want it because I’ll get pings on my smartphone from my vagina. Useless and awesome.

          1. Jaydee*

            Truly, this world is full of marvels! My husband can mock me all he wants. That is a kickstarter I want to support!

          2. Lemon*

            I was not on board for this until I read “get pings on my smartphone from my vagina”. I really would love it if it was stuff like “All good down here!”

          3. AnotherAlison*

            Hmmm. For some reason I jumped to worrying about this because wifi in my repro system seems wrong, and yet, I don’t mind wrapping my head in my bluetooth headset daily. I know studies say wifi is safe, but is it truly safe, or “safe” like cigarettes and helmet-to-helmet football contact?

      2. emma*

        This is actually a thing. It’s more expensive, but there’s a first response test that is bluetooth enabled.

      3. Sara*

        There actually is one, First Response makes a Bluetooth enabled test that connects to an app on your phone.

    2. Kate*

      Agree. I was a little disappointed that the employment lawyer, Donna Ballman, didn’t get this. Even if you test yourself before the trip it might be too earlier to detect, or you might get a false negative. And Zika is most dangerous in the early stages of development!

            1. Jessie*

              So hearing more from the LW about what he meant when he said the women “voiced concerns” would be helpful in knowing whether this would be covered by the Act – if they said, “I’m trying to get pregnant and so I really don’t feel safe going to a ZIKA area” then they are on more solid ground. If they said “I’m a woman and so I’m not supposed to go anywhere there is ZIKA” then they really aren’t.

              Though as I said below, there are state-level contract laws at play here that would likely still apply. (Every single state has laws that say a company – in any context, employer, outsider, anyone – can’t unilaterally charge you for things without notice. So if the employer does not have any kind of policy about charging people who don’t go on trips, and did not explicitly tell the women this would be a consequence, they cannot now charge them.)

            2. Mookie*

              But the LW explicitly wrote this (emphasis added):

              This is pretty blatant pregnancy discrimination as they were penalized for making a decision based on their intent to become pregnant.

      1. the_scientist*

        Yeah, I was disappointed by Donna’s response here as well, although she is not an infectious disease specialist and I understand she’s analyzing the legal arguments here. BUT: any woman of childbearing age who is sexually active *may* be pregnant unless there is definitive proof to the contrary (and “I’m on the pill” isn’t proof, and even with an IUD things happen). Remember that uproar a few months back when the CDC made recommendations that ALL women of child-bearing age should limit their alcohol intake to protect hypothetical pregnancies? It is a massive oversimplification to assume that women who aren’t confirmed to be pregnant at that exact moment are fine and safe to travel. Not to mention, we actually don’t know very much about how long Zika can stay in the body, so the 8 week guideline is based on best-available evidence and could be extended (or reduced) as more evidence is generated.

        Further, it’s a gross violation of privacy and autonomy to ask people to adjust their family planning to suit the business’s needs and to disclose an intent to become pregnant in the future so they have a “valid reason” to not attend.

        Also, I believe the guideline is that men should wait at least 6 months before trying to conceive, so this retreat could very well have had an impact on some men in the group as well. I understand that only women declined to attend the retreat, but it’s not like women are the only ones who need to be worried about Zika transmission…..

        1. JustaTech*

          I was chatting with my doctor about all the places I don’t feel like I can go on vacation now (anywhere tropical, basically) because of Zika and she said “Yeah, the no sex for a year is kind of a damper on marriages.” A YEAR! Presumably that’s only if you or your partner actually *get* Zika, but still.

          1. the_scientist*

            Well, I think abstention for a year is pretty conservative- you can use a barrier method, which of course isn’t foolproof. Of course in the areas where Zika is endemic, condoms are hard to find, birth control is expensive and abortion laws are draconian. Bad situation all around.

            Also, all it would take for this company to get massively sued is ONE person to go on this retreat, get Zika, and have a child with microcephaly. I feel like that’s a legal game of chicken that any sane company wants to avoid.

            1. Honeybee*

              The chances of this happening are vanishingly small. First you would actually have to get Zika; then you would have to get pregnant within 8 weeks of getting Zika; and then you would have to have complications. The estimated risk of microcephaly in women who get Zika is about 1 percent.

              The chances of someone slipping and falling on a mopped floor or getting hit by the company car are probably bigger than the chances of a woman having a microcephalic baby due to a company retreat to Miami. The Zika zones in Miami have actually be been lifted, and the vast majority of cases of Zika in the Miami are are travel-related (i.e., Miami residents who actually got Zika after traveling in the Caribbean).

              Of course, every person needs to make a determination for themselves how much risk they want to take on, and I think this employer is wrong for trying to charge these women for not wanting to go on the retreat. That said, I don’t think the very small risk of a lawsuit is worth changing the location of the retreat for. (The comfort and safety of your employees, however, IS a good reason.)

              1. Sunrise Farm*

                If I were to walk out my back door and fire a gun blindly right at this moment, the chances of me hitting someone or so small that I do have a better chance of winning the lottery. However, that doesn’t make it smart or legal.

                Also, from a legal perspective, when assessing risk you don’t only look at the likelihood of an outcome. You also look at the severity of impact if the outcome occurs. You also have to look at the cost of mitigation. Here the cost to mitigate with simply to let the women stay home. Well the odds of contracting the disease may be low, the consequences if it occurs are pretty severe.

                Contrast this with say the risk of getting a cold. The risk is much higher, but for most people, consequences are pretty minor. If it’s a virus, the ability to mitigate is almost nonexistent.

                My point is that simply saying the chances of something happening were very small is only the beginning of the analysis

        2. Episkey*

          All very good points as well. My friend, who is a nurse, went to Mexico with her husband and so they ended up having to wait the full 6 months! I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal to some people, but when you are ready for it to happen, even the 8 weeks/2 months feels like a long time to wait.

          1. the_scientist*

            And that’s sort of the root of the issue, right? The company shouldn’t really get to decide that it’s not a big deal to wait 6 months or a year to try to conceive.

        3. Rat in the Sugar*

          Wait, wait, wait–is it just me or is that CDC thing a little crazy?? So, if I start having sex I’m supposed to limit my drinking, stop dying my hair, and stop cleaning the cat-box just in case I MIGHT be pregnant?? All of those things can be harmful…that seems really limiting on all sexually-active women of child-bearing age to advise them to restrict any activity that might be harmful to a fetus.

          1. the_scientist*

            No, it’s totally crazy, and totally an over-reach by the CDC. And people were rightly up in arms about it! I’m just using it to illustrate a point about the difficulty of “known pregnancy” vs. “hypothetical pregnancy”……like others have said, it’s not like you get a text message the second the swimmer hits the egg, so there is that maybe-pregnant (Schrodinger’s pregnancy??) stage if you’re actively TTC or passively not-not trying.

            1. Engineer Girl*

              It’s not over reach. It’s “know your risks and make an informed decision.” There’s a difference.

              1. the_scientist*

                The way the CDC phrased their message was that “all women of child bearing age” should limit alcohol consumption regardless of intent to become pregnant or precautions taken to avoid pregnancy, which I think *is* in fact an overreach (I’m a public health professional, so I’m not just talking out my ass here). Informing women of the risks of alcohol consumption during early pregnancy and advising them to understand those risks and make an informed decision is certainly *not* an over-reach, but that’s not really how they put the message out, and certainly not how it was picked up by the media. “Understand your risks/make an informed decision” places the choice and agency on individuals, while “don’t drink, ladies” doesn’t.

                1. Government Worker*


                  I’ve been in a monogamous relationship with another woman for well over a decade. When I was trying to get pregnant, I was well aware of that exact timing of every aspect and could abstain from alcohol. It’s kind of offensive that the CDC thinks I shouldn’t drink until menopause because… I don’t even know, I might have accidentally had sex with a man without realizing it and not know I was pregnant?

                  Not all women routinely engage in sexual activity that risks pregnancy, and to frame public health campaigns otherwise is tone deaf at best.

                2. Kore*

                  Yeah, while the actual content makes sense (know your risks) how it was phrased was kind of bonkers. My birth control is more effective than if I got my tubes tied, I think I’ll be fine. But yeah, the “all women of child-bearing age” thing is ridiculous since it doesn’t count if you aren’t sexually active or if you are sexually active but know you won’t have a child (either if you/partner had tubes tied, IUDs, would have an abortion if your birth control failed, etc.)

                3. Cath in Canada*

                  I can’t wait until awareness of the potential for paternal epigenetic transmission becomes widespread enough that people start shaming men about drinking alcohol and doing other “sinful” things if there’s even the smallest chance they might soon help to conceive a child. ;)

                4. Mel*

                  When I was in college I joked that my regular alcohol consumption was part of my birth control plan (in addition to the pill) because if I accidentally became pregnant it meant I would definitely need to have an abortion because of the concern over FAS from all the alcohol.

                5. Elf*

                  The thing is, any woman (who is having sex) COULD be pregnant – I have strong evidence in the form of the toddler sitting on me right now. I had an IUD, and given my normal cycle irregularities did not know I was pregnant until 9 weeks. I had a *lovely* weekend where multiple medical professionals said “the first eight weeks are the most critical – but you’re past that, so don’t fuss!”

                  I rarely drink, but I had been drinking while pregnant. I rarely take medications but I had taken some during that period. I had not taken any prenatal vitamins for the most critical stretch of my pregnancy. I would absolutely not travel to a Zika area even with my IUD, because even though it is incredibly rare, no form of birth control is perfect (except abstinence, which I have no interest in trying).

                  It is unreasonable to treat women as walking incubators, but it is also unreasonable to put a woman in a position where she has to choose between abortion and possible microcephaly if her birth control method fails.

                  The thing is, it’s not about whether the women were pregnant or planned to get pregnant immediately. It’s about the fact that if their birth control failed accidentally they would have to choose between an abortion they might not want and possible terrible birth defects.

              2. Honeybee*

                It was absolutely an overreach. The CDC’s recommendation was that women who were having sex and not using birth control should stop drinking. The public health community reacted in an appropriately horrified manner.

            2. Pineapple Incident*

              haha Shrodinger’s pregnancy – maybe if we open that box we’ll find a note that says “women aren’t walking incubators, wandering through life in a perpetual state of might be pregnant from ages 12-55”

            3. Trillian*

              Woman have been fighting against “perpetually potentially pregnant” as a source of employment discrimination for decades. Everything from being getting access to jobs in industry (and their pay) to being considered viable candidates for professional development.

          2. AnonEMoose*

            Well, according to some, we’re not really people – just walking incubators. So, yes, according to these people, we should absolutely assume we “might” be pregnant and act accordingly, because otherwise, why are we having sex?

            That said, I do feel for women who might not be ready to disclose a pregnancy yet, or who are trying to conceive, and who then have to decide about travelling to areas with Zika or sharing more information than they want to with their companies. Because, as with so many other things, no matter what she decides, someone will think she’s wrong.

          3. Jane D'oh!*

            A large part of CDC pregnancy advice makes little sense. Anyone with high-school-level science knowledge can research the life cycle of toxoplasmosis well enough to figure out how to deal with litter boxes. If you’re cleaning them seldom enough for the oocycts to become infectious, you’ve got bigger problems.

          4. Stellaaaaa*

            There’s actually a huge problem with women thinking they can’t get pregnant because they’ve been sloppy with birth control and they haven’t yet gotten pregnant…only to later learn that they’re totally fine in terms of fertility. Think of (bear with me here) Snooki: she was a bit nervous about her pregnancy because she’d never had a surprise pregnancy despite being bad with her BC, so she was still drinking pretty heavily throughout the first six weeks or so of her pregnancy. Even in the open threads here, there are often comments from women talking about how similar things happened to them. It’s super important for younger women to understand that they’re not infertile just because they’ve gotten lucky about skipping condoms a few times.

        4. Honeybee*

          That is a ridiculous standard that the CDC, and any health agency, is not going to support. Yes, any woman may be pregnant, but that is no reason to not travel to affected areas, drink alcohol, eat fish, or do any of the other things women routinely do that they don’t do when they are pregnant. That’s exactly what the uproar was about when that recommendation came out – women (and men) were pissed that a large health agency would treat all women as essentially potential baby-carrying vessels.

          There’s a middle ground between accommodating women who actually plan to become pregnant in the near future and treating all women as if they may be pregnant at any moment.

        5. g*

          To be fair, I may not be able to know if I am pregnant, but I can know if I will keep it. So on that front at least, I can breathe a little easier!

        6. Barney Stinson*

          It’s The Handmaid’s Tale all over again. Margaret Atwood knew what she was talking about.

    3. Mike C.*

      Yeah, this is where I’m at. At the same time, please continue advocating on behalf of your employees. This is terrible HR and folks like the OP need to stand up to them.

    4. Navy Vet*

      I’m more than a little bit concerned the company will start to discriminate against these women because they appear to be trying to get pregnant…you know…the usual push out.

      Many women keep the fact that they are trying to conceive under wraps from their employers for that reason exactly. (And some women are having difficulty to start and don’t want to share that with any old shmuck.) Some employers still find it appropriate to ask you if you intend to get pregnant during the interview….and count it against you.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        And some might be pregnant, in the early stages, and not be ready to share that information yet, for all kinds of reasons.

    5. Episkey*

      Exactly. Look, I’m 35 and have been having issues getting pregnant, but I’m actively trying. So for a company to expect me to go and then have to delay any conception efforts for an additional 2 months would greatly upset me. I would probably opt to not attend either, even if I was 100% positive I wasn’t pregnant at the time of departure.

      1. hbc*

        Or if I announced that I couldn’t go when I was 28 because I was trying to conceive, and then have everyone wonder where the baby was for four years? Nothankyou.

        1. Ted Mosby*

          Exactly. Also, *shockingly*, my boss isnt the first person we told when we started trying. It was my one best friend then absolutely fucking no one bc who wants to be asked about that when you’re trying and it’s not happening?

          Such a huge issue if you’re going to say “this doesn’t matter unless you’re pregnant or trying” like dude GTFO

    6. Epsilon Delta*

      Heck, they could have been pregnant even if they were NOT trying to conceive. Birth control fails, and all that.

  3. VioletFem*

    I’ve never heard of company purchasing flight ticket before getting confirmation from their employees that they would attend the conference. Something very fishy the company’s behavior is really bizarre

    1. AndersonDarling*

      What would have happened if an employee had a death in the family and could not attend the retreat? Would they have been charged for the flight?
      I also think it is fishy that they are only being charged for the flight. What about the hotel rooms, meals, and transportation. If they were able to cancel those expenses, they why not the airline tickets? I wonder if HR was supposed to cancel the flights, dropped the ball, and is now trying to cover it up.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        It’s possible that there would have been travel insurance that kicked in with the death of a close family member. But yeah, I agree that it’s fishy that flights seem to be the only issue.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I read that too fast and thought you said, “what if the employee died?” and I wondered if they would bill the estate.

    2. Garrett*

      Yeah, there is some missing information from the letter (not that it would change my opinion that the company is acting like a jerk). Were these women asked if they wanted to go? Did they say no beforehand and the company bought tickets anyway? If the women knew about the retreat and said nothing until the last minute, I can see why the company may be upset (again, it doesn’t change my opinion).

      What if someone’s mom died the day before or someone got appendicitis? Would they make them reimburse? This is the cost of doing business and sometimes as a company, you lose some money. It happens. They need to drop it.

      1. Tequila Mockingbird*

        I am wondering if (maybe) the women originally committed to the conference, then cancelled at the last minute – or worse, ghosted on the trip and simply didn’t go. So the company was stuck with 3 tickets they couldn’t cancel in time. Because, as said above, it makes no sense that the company would buy flights before getting a head count first.

        I feel like there’s a lot of missing context. The letter says “Three women on my team ultimately made the decision not to attend” – the word “ultimately” suggests that they made the decision last-minute. Who knows.

        But yeah, as was said above – employees cancel on conferences all the time due to illness, emergency, family issues, etc., so why are these women being targeted specifically? And it’s weird that hotel and other costs weren’t factored.

          1. Tequila Mockingbird*

            Ah, thanks for the clarification.

            The company’s behavior still makes no sense!

            OP has said that there were other employees who did not attend, either (presumably for other reasons). Has OP clarified whether they received invoices too?

    3. Ama*

      I’m also confused as to why the company doesn’t seem to have canceled the unused tickets. Most airline tickets allow you to cancel and rebook within a year of original travel dates, minus the change fee and difference in fare. I could *maybe* see asking for the change fee (it would still be bad) but if they are asking for the entire fare back someone didn’t do their job in canceling the tickets first.

      It kind of sounds to me like someone biffed the travel arrangements (perhaps forgetting to cancel the tickets that would go unused, or maybe someone never told the travel booker who wasn’t coming) and is trying to cover their own mistake by blaming it on the employees.

      1. Marisol*

        I book lots of travel for work and the most I’ve ever paid on a change fee is $200. All the major airline carriers are the same. Had HR cancelled the tix within 1/2 an hour before takeoff, they could have at least had that credit for a year, as you mention, which the employees may or may not have had a reason to use but at least the option would be there. My money is on whoever coordinated the travel dropped the ball.

  4. AnotherAlison*

    So a refusal to travel to Miami may not be protected activity for women who were not pregnant or about to become pregnant (such as someone who had an artificial insemination scheduled or who was actively attempting to get pregnant).

    How would an employee, or the company, make the case that someone was or was not actively trying to become pregnant?

    1. Marche*

      I was going to say the same thing.

      The company has no way of knowing if there were employees trying to get (or were in the early stages of, as Wanda888 points out below) pregnant, so to slap them with invoices is really gross.

        1. Sunrise Farm*

          Just because the law may not have prtected the women from opting out on grounds of pregnancy does not automatically mean it’s fair to bill them for opting out.

          Not my area of law, however, I do think that there’s a two-stage analysis here that was missed. The issue of whether or not there’s a pregnancy discrimination aspect is only one issue. There’s a totally separate analysis that needs to be done regarding whether or not payment should be required from anyone who didn’t attend. If so, under what circumstances. That’s not a discrimination issue. It’s something else entirely which will be largely contingent on the law in the state in which this company operates. In my state, the company would be in trouble for this.

          I would think that you don’t actually to go with the pregnancy route to gain protection of the law. There are plenty of healthcare related laws that would prevent the company from prying too hard into people choosing to opt out. They might have required a doctors note or some other form of legitimate opting out. That, however, should’ve been on the company. To blanketly force people to attend an offsite in an area with a known health risk without providing some opt out is asking for trouble. I don’t see how you can actually avoid prying into peoples private health data or skittering on to the pregnancy issue .

    2. caryatis*

      The employee would have to tell the employer they were trying to get pregnant and ask to be excused for that reason. Don’t want to disclose? Tough luck, you can’t get an accommodation you don’t ask for.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Seems that the women were TTC or they wouldn’t have asked for the exception or had the concern. Even if they weren’t, so now they just say they were. I don’t see that the company could dispute it or ask for proof.

      2. Katie the Fed*

        Well, presumably if they’d known they be charged for this, they could have done so. It’s the after-the-fact nature of this that’s so infuriating.

        1. Katie the Fed*

          Well, no. It’s all infuriating. But that’s the infuriating gravy on top of infuriating mashed potatoes.

        2. Jessie*

          And this after-the-fact issue brings up possible problems with contract law. Someone – an employer, a friend, an associate – can’t just charge you for things. There has to be notice, an agreement. If there is no policy anywhere about plane ticket charges, the company can’t invent one after the fact because it is mad. That does actually have a very real possibility of violating state contract laws. Yes, in the US employment laws may not forbid this (though intent to become pregnant is covered by discrimination law) but other areas of law likely do.

          1. LBK*

            A contract just gives you legal recourse if someone violates the terms. The absence of a contract in this case means the company couldn’t sue the women if they refuse to pay it back, but I don’t think there’s anything preventing the company from firing them.

            1. Jessie*

              That’s what I’m getting at – that there is no contract here that would require them to pay the money, so they are not in fact required to pay the money. I didn’t read the company was threatening to fire them; the company can do that (absent some information about whether it knew the women were trying to conceive). But it has no ability legally to collect money from them. It cannot charge them for their flights.

              1. Dan*

                I’m not being pedantic here, but the company does have a couple of options:

                1) Sue them in small claims court. The company may not win, but it can make their lives difficult.

                2) Even worse than getting sued: Reporting this as a delinquent debt to a collection agency.

                Even if the employee has no legal requirement to pay back the airfare, companies can go with either option and it would really suck.

                1. Jessie*

                  Dan, happy to nitpick right back at you. :-)

                  If they report to a collection agency the employee can dispute it (which can be done online, takes 5 minutes). The employer would then have 30 days to show proof to the reporting agency that the debt is valid – which would mean, you know, showing the contract. Without an agreement to prove anything the credit agencies would remove the debt. (Simply showing proof they they, the business, purchased plan tickets will not be proof for the agency that the employees owe the money. It will be proof only that the employer bought itself tickets, which is not proof that the employees owe the company that money.)

                  They won’t win in small claims court because they have no legal right to the money (from what it seems – obviously, we don’t have every single detail). Small claims is a hassle but not a huge deal. Again, absent some big piece of information, they won’t win.

                  If the company wanted to seriously take action, it can fire the employees. But it actually won’t be able to collect money from them or damage their credit report.

                2. LBK*

                  Personally, if I got fired, knowing my company still wouldn’t be recouping the money would be pretty meaningless consolation.

              2. LBK*

                My point was just that the absence of legal recourse doesn’t mean the women are free and clear to refuse to pay, because the company still has plenty of consequences they can levy against them for not paying, up to and including firing them. The absence of a contract doesn’t really make any pragmatic difference to the women; it doesn’t strengthen their defense of why they shouldn’t pay or provide them protection against the most obvious method of recourse, which would be termination.

              3. Not So NewReader*

                Granted it’s smaller dollar amounts, but from what I have seen companies just take it out of your paycheck.

                “You owe us, we will be deducting it from your pay.”

      3. Sunrise Farm*

        That’s also presuming that federal law is the only issue here. There are some states that actually provide broader protection. So we don’t know what the actual legal context is for these women. They actually need to go talk to an employment lawyer and their own state.

  5. Wanda888*

    Some of those women may have been in the early stages of pregnancy, before wanting to disclose that at work. (Note: Many agents that cause birth defects are especially nasty at those early stages, when the embryo is deciding things like which end is going to be the head and where all the organs are going to go.) So, it may well have been pregnancy discrimination even if the OP believes that the women are not pregnant.

    1. caryatis*

      I don’t agree. You can’t ask the employer to accommodate pregnancy if the employer doesn’t know the employee is pregnant. Just like any other disability–it’s not the employer’s job to guess about your medical conditions.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        We had some really awkward situations at my job, where people travel from non-Zika areas to Zika areas pretty regularly. A colleague who presumably wouldn’t have told the whole office about her fertility treatments was basically forced to, as she cancelled a trip at the beginning of the outbreak.

        1. Mabel*

          This is what really bothers me – that people may have to disclose personal medical information that they’d rather not discuss with their employers. Companies should not ask people to travel to Zika areas, and if they do, they should accept that some employees won’t want to travel there and won’t want to have to disclose medical conditions (in addition to potential or actual pregnancy) as the reason.

          1. TL -*

            Companies still have to do business, regardless of what diseases are travelling around the world, and if you’re a sales person whose territory covers south Florida, you can’t just stop selling to south Florida (or refusing to show up if someone wants to get you back.)

            It’s just not practical to say “stop all business where the Zika outbreak is.” And if an employee wants an accommodation, they’re going to have to have a reason. It sucks, but it’s the only workable response.

            1. AnitaJ*

              Right, but this was a (seemingly) arbitrary location that was chosen for the company retreat. Not a client meeting. Not a vendor meeting. Not a big annual once-a-year conference that they chose for specific location reasons. There’s no indication that there were pressing, completely unchangeable reasons that made it mandatory for the non-client-facing retreat to be held in Miami. (Not wanting to lose a deposit is not a mandatory reason when the company chose the location freely)

              1. TL -*

                Right, this company is handling it badly (and should’ve just let it go), but as you can’t travel to Zika areas safely if you’re pregnant or not preventing conception, you’re going to have to disclose on some level in order to not travel, regardless of what previous norms were. That’s all.

              2. Honeybee*

                The thing is, it doesn’t matter – once the company booked the retreat and paid the fees for the location, it probably couldn’t change without taking a huge financial risk. Besides, even if it was an arbitrary risk, it’s like people said – you can’t just completely stop traveling to Zika areas altogether. And to be quite frank, there were only two small neighborhoods in the Miami Beach area that were designated “Zika areas” and both had their restrictions lifted recently because there was no evidence of infection. I do believe the company should allow anyone who felt uncomfortable going to back out, and should have probably considered having the retreat somewhere else. But deciding to have it there wasn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

                1. the_scientist*

                  Of course people can personally decide that they aren’t travelling to Zika areas at all. Many women–some right here– have done just that. Deciding to have the retreat in Miami may not have been deliberately malicious (and from the OP it sounds like the CDC issued its travel advisory for Miami Beach *after* they had selected the location, so some of this is just poor timing) but it’s certainly not inclusive. You’re probably right that the company couldn’t cancel without losing a deposit but they absolutely could have allowed people to opt out once there was a travel advisory issued to that region.

          2. Cat*

            If people regularly travel from non-Zika areas to Zika areas, presumably it’s a core part of their business. You can’t expect every USAID contractor to cease all their Caribbean activities, for instance. And when core business activities intersect with medical limitations, sometimes that does lead to awkward conversations – that’s just life, I think.

          3. paul*

            That’s a stretch to me. Sorry, but some work entails travel. Hell, I’ve been to a Zika region 3x this year for work (I’m fixed, so we’re definitely not trying for more). If I was trying to get my wife pregnant and there were concerns about males carrying the virus and infecting embryos, I’d raise it with them, but I can’t expect businesses to drop everything in TX and FL because ZIKA!

            1. Kate*

              There is. Men can carry the virus, and the CDC recommends that men traveling to an area with Zika wait (8 weeks or 6 months, one of the two I think) before trying for a baby. Of course accidents happen too.

              1. paul*

                So what’s the course of action then? Allow any employee of child bearing age at all not to go to the gulf coast? I don’t see that as actually viable for any businesses that do business, in say, Houston or Orlando…

                1. the_scientist*

                  I mean, I understand that most businesses aren’t used to handling outbreaks, but in global public health, this stuff is incredibly routine and it’s super easy to accommodate with like, the bare minimum of effort. If you have to do business in an outbreak zone, as a company you do one or all of the following:

                  – offer vaccination or prophylactic treatment where available
                  – recruit specifically for willingness to travel to outbreak zones
                  – allow current employees to volunteer to travel to those zones (i.e. employees who are child free, have completed their childbearing, or whose family planning won’t be impacted by current travel)
                  – offer hazard pay.

                  I interviewed for short term contract positions in Ebola zones and they did some of these things (no vaccines, obviously). But outbreaks are truly unique situations- like natural disasters- and you have to make adjustments. It’s honestly not that catastrophic or difficult.

                2. Jaydee*

                  I agree that many employers cannot simply put a hold on travel to areas with Zika, especially if they do business there regularly. But many employees of child bearing age aren’t going to have any objection to traveling to those regions. You don’t have an objection. I’m not fixed and neither is my husband, but we’re not planning on having any more kids. So I wouldn’t object if my employer asked me to travel somewhere that Zika is prevalent. But I would expect that they would make exceptions if an employee said “Hey, my partner and I are trying to conceive and I’m not comfortable traveling to [location] because of the risk of birth defects from Zika.”

                  I see the same type of slippery slope argument a lot in the context of making accommodations for people with disabilities. “Well, if we let Person A with legitimate medical need for an exception to the rules to have an exception, then everyone is going to ask for one.” First of all, no. Everyone is not going to ask for one. Secondly, you don’t have to make an exception if the person doesn’t have a legitimate need for an exception. And finally, if everyone *does* start asking for an exception to the rule even without a legitimate need for an exception, maybe consider whether the rule is really necessary.

        2. Anon for this one*

          Occasional commenter on here but anon for this one. I’m currently in this situation–starting treatment for fertility next week but I’m not disclosing until months into confirmed pregnancy. My mom and sister are the only ones that know. This would be super uncomfortable to have to confirm to my boss before I’m ready.

          1. Anna*

            For 99% of situations that’s absolutely fair. But this is one of those 1% situations where your wishes as a private person don’t mesh with the wishes or needs of a business and something will have to give. If it’s your livelihood, it will probably be you.

            1. Sunrise Farm*

              Except it wasn’t a business need. The business would’ve continued without this. It was entirely optional.

      2. Viktoria*

        I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not sure if that’s accurate. In terms of pregnancy discrimination (not the ADA)- this is what the EEOC has to say on “intention to become pregnant.” It’s not clear from their text if it’s a prerequisite that the employer know about the intention:

        “Title VII similarly prohibits an employer from discriminating against an employee because of her intention to become pregnant.[32] As one court has stated, “Discrimination against an employee because she intends to, is trying to, or simply has the potential to become pregnant is . . . illegal discrimination.”[33] In addition, Title VII prohibits employers from treating men and women differently based on their family status or their intention to have children.

        Because Title VII prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy, employers should not make inquiries into whether an applicant or employee intends to become pregnant. The EEOC will generally regard such an inquiry as evidence of pregnancy discrimination where the employer subsequently makes an unfavorable job decision affecting a pregnant worker.[34]”

        And a separate section on disparate impact: “Title VII is violated if a facially neutral policy has a disproportionate adverse effect on women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions and the employer cannot show that the policy is job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.[88]”

        I’d be curious to hear a lawyer weighing in on if I’m interpreting this correctly, but my assumption would be that this means a policy that disproportionately affects pregnant or intending-to-become-pregnant woman would be prohibited, regardless of the employers’ prior knowledge of which women specifically fell into that group.

        (Link to follow).

        1. Sunrise Farm*

          I’m a lawyer. This is not my area, but I think the consulting lawyer missed a few things. So I just briefly asked local employment lawyer I know here. She said in our state the company would be hosed and she disagreed with the analysis of the federal law.

          I think the best advice that could be given would be for these three women to split the cost of talking to an employment attorney in their local jurisdiction. None of us really know for certain what the legal context is. This is why you go to a local expert.

          If OP wants to help, he could make a few phone calls and find an attorney who specializes in this area. He could then go back to his bosses and say that they’re putting thr company in danger by doing this.

      3. TychaBrahe*

        But here’s the thing: if the employee is actively (or even passively) trying to get pregnant, or have personal or religious reasons that forbid using birth control, they may already be pregnant and not know it themselves.

        Let’s say you are trying to get pregnant. You would have to take measures to prevent pregnancy for up to a month prior to this trip and two months after to protect yourself. Let’s say you normally use chemical birth control to prevent pregnancy, but have stopped taking it in the hopes of getting pregnant. You cannot just re-start taking the birth control. It takes a month to be effective, during which time you have to use another method as backup. Then when you stop taking the pill two months after the trip, you may take up to three months to begin ovulating again. So you have to change your sexual behavior for two months prior to the trip and delay getting pregnant for as many as five months. That’s HUGELY intrusive of the company.

        I have a friend who is Catholic. She isn’t exactly trying to get pregnant, but she follows the Church’s edict on not using birth control. If a pregnancy results, she and her husband welcome the baby. The company would basically be requiring her to abstain from sex for three months for this trip in order to prevent having a child at risk.

        1. TL -*

          Hopefully, you would just be able to tell your company, “I’m not able to travel to Zika-infested regions for medical reasons.” (it would be pretty obvious if you’re of childbirthing years).
          I am a woman of childbearing years and I am not at all worried about Zika (because I actively preventing conception). I would prefer the company give people the option to opt out rather than negatively impacting someone’s career by assuming all women and men who are of childbearing age not travel to these regions (which is the only other option.)

        2. catholic&anonymous*

          Not to get all up in your friend’s business, but…unless her cycles are really strange, she shouldn’t have to abstain for three months straight, just for the fertile parts of each cycle (probably about a week or two–different NFP methods calculate it differently). Unless she’s not using any method of NFP, which is also fine, obvi. But for anyone considering NFP/FABM: you don’t have to be that hardcore about it if you don’t want to! ;)

          1. Rat in the Sugar*

            I wouldn’t give people that advice about NFP. Every time it’s brought up at Church I hear the other women in the choir start muttering about which of their kids were conceived while using NFP as birth control. It’s know to not be reliable, so if someone is worried that they have Zika, they should take their doctor’s recommendation over anyone else’s. Microcephaly is not something to take a chance on.

          2. Just Another Techie*

            NFP/FABM is super unreliable as a method of contraception. According to the CDC failure rates are 24%! And especially for someone who presumably has religious objections to terminating a fetus affected by zika, I would strongly recommend against relying on NFP.

              1. TL -*

                So assuming that one study is accurate, a pregnancy rate of 10-12% is several order of magnitude higher than <.1% (properly used hormonal methods and copper IUD; the pill improperly taken is still at 1-2%) and a higher pregnancy rate than both properly and (I think) improperly used condoms. I don't know how it compares to people who are just straight up having unprotected sex, which is the important factor, but as that number is nowhere near 100%, it is safe to say that natural family planning, compared to other methods available, is not effective.

                It's okay if you're okay with the failure rates, but it shouldn't be promoted as an effective birth control method.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              This always makes me think of that Roseanne episode where Becky and her mother and Jackie are talking about birth control.

              Becky: You mean I actually have to go into the store and, like, buy condoms myself? God, how embarrassing.
              Roseanne: Well, you don’t have to go in there and buy them. I mean, you could use the rhythm method.
              Becky: Oh, does it work?
              Roseanne: Ask your brother.

        3. Honeybee*

          It’s a myth that hormonal birth control takes a month to be effective. It starts working in 7 days or less. It also can take UP to three months after the pill, but most women start ovulating again within two weeks. It really depends on the regularity of your cycles before you started taking birth control.

          1. Sunrise Farm*

            As someone who cannot take any form of hormonal birth control pill without risking death, that really wouldn’t help me.

      4. Artemesia*

        The women made clear they wouldn’t go because of Ziki — they don’t really need to know more than that — if they are decent human beings.

      5. my two cents*

        There’s something particularly Icky about your comment about pregnancy being like “any other disability”.

        These women shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to disclose whether or not they’re ‘actually’ pregnant at that moment as an “alternative” to having to eat the cost of a ticket for a company retreat to Miami.

        Also, pretty sure women are discouraged from announcing a pregnancy until after the first trimester, as WAY too much can happen in the first few months and it so often results in a miscarriage and lots and lots of heart ache.

        Cause what’s the resolution now? Would you expect these 3 women to have to provide ‘evidence’ that they were, in fact, a week or two pregnant at the time to avoid repayment? Cause wow…even just typing that out is super duper gross.

        1. Natalie*

          “These women shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to disclose whether or not they’re ‘actually’ pregnant at that moment as an “alternative” to having to eat the cost of a ticket for a company retreat to Miami.”

          I don’t think caryatis is advocating for them to have to pay for the tickets, but simply that in order to get an accommodation you have to disclose what your condition is. And that’s completely normal for any kind of physical condition, including disabilities and pregnancy. Hell, when I was in lab sciences in college we were asked about pregnancy a couple of times because we were working with certain chemicals. It was all very awkward because we were 20, but diseases and chemicals don’t respect social conventions about waiting until the second trimester.

          1. Natalie*

            To add a little historical context folks might not be aware of: the idea that women are perpetually pregnant or moments away from being pregnant was used as a pretext to keep women out of some blue collar jobs after explicit sex discrimination was made illegal. I don’t recall the exact details (been a while since I read Susan Faludi’s Backlash) but there was a group of female chemical plant workers that actually opted to be sterilized, and then STILL weren’t given their jobs back. So, IMO, there is good reason to expect an employee to disclose if they need an accommodation. I don’t want my employer paternalistically trying to “protect” me from something that I don’t need protection from.

                1. fposte*

                  @Natalie–Looks like might have been there once, as the talk page includes a tidy bibliography for the Willow Island incident. I’m not good at parsing history pages to figure out what happened, though.

          2. TL -*

            Yeah, I think that’s why it doesn’t seem like a big deal to disclose to me – I work in a lab and people disclose pretty early because they may not be able to work with some chemicals or may want to opt out of some procedures entirely. But being refused the opportunity to work on those experiments because I am of child-bearing age would be more than a little problematic!

            I get that it’s not the norm, but if it’s social norm vs health concerns vs treati20-30s people as primarily child makers, I think the best way to handle it is to just disclose as much as necessary for medical accommodations.

      6. LBK*

        There’s some pretty gross, sexist assumptions that can follow when people are encouraged to have the mindset that every woman of childbearing age should be treated as if she might be or get pregnant. There’s been big pushes away from this way of thinking, because it can lead to women in their 20s and 30s getting mommy tracked under the assumption that they’ll probably end up getting pregnant at some point, even if they’ve expressed no desire to do so (of course, the whole idea of mommy tracking is gross and sexist, but this just extends it to women for whom it’s even less applicable).

        I understand that the flipside is that it can put women in an uncomfortable situation like this where they have to disclose their pregnancy/intent to become pregnant before they would want to. I’m just not sure encouraging one mindset over the other is necessarily better; there needs to be nuance depending on the application.

        1. Marisol*

          A nuanced way is the best way, but if I had to choose between the mindsets you mention, I’d say a trend toward disclosure is healthier because it can help de-stigmatize (sp?) women’s bodily functions and human sexuality in general.

          But that can also be invasive. Not sure if this is an example of what you mean by mommy tracking but recently I got some x-rays in the ER after a car accident. Usually the tech asks women, “is there any chance that you could be pregnant?” before taking x-rays. On this occasion, when I told them no, they handed me a cup to pee in for a pregnancy test, to make sure I wasn’t pregnant! I said I was positive I wasn’t pregnant and I didn’t want to take the test. I am a grown woman. It was so paternalistic and weird.

          1. Government Worker*

            My wife had to fight off a pregnancy test in the ER when moving around more to take the test would have been painful given the injury she was being treated for. “I’m a lesbian who has never had sex with a man” was finally accepted as an excuse, but I think it took tears to finally sway them.

            And I get it – some medical tests and medications are devastating in early pregnancy, and everyone in the medical field has run across a case of someone who said she wasn’t pregnant but later turned out to be. There’s a difference between “I’m sexually active with men but on the pill” and “I’m positive I’m not pregnant” that is hard for the medical profession to navigate.

            1. Liane*

              For the love of–whatever!
              I have never had a medical professional not take my word that I could or couldn’t possibly be pregnant. Regardless of whether that answer was “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe.”

              1. Survivor*

                Ha! I bet you’ve not had surgery! Terminally ill (so they thought!), wheel chair bound, mid 40’s with pressure sores wasn’t enough to convince TPTB that multiple years of abstinence made any chance of pregnancy in the realm biblical odds. Pregnancy tests were insisted upon & performed repeatedly. More than one medical facility. Only got out of it once because I was too dehydrated to produce urine and a blood test would take too long – only because God … err… The Surgeon waived it.

            2. doreen*

              Except that I know a lot of women who would say ” I’m positive I’m not pregnant” ( because they are positive) when they really mean ““I’m sexually active with men but on the pill” .

              I am perhaps the only person with the opposite problem. When I was younger, they used to just hand me the cup when I got to the doctor’s office if a potential pregnancy was an issue .Now they wait until they are about to do the test to say ” You don’t menstruate, do you?” clearly expecting the answer to be “no”. But even though I’m 53, the answer is “yes”. So everything gets delayed until I can fill the cup.

          2. anon for this comment...*

            I have not had sex since June of 2015 because I have not met anyone recently that I would like to have sex with….LOL This is my conversation in the ER last month

            DR: Any chance you could be pregnant?
            Me: Nope
            DR: How do you know that? (Said in sarcastic disbelieving tone)
            Me: I haven’t had sex since June 2015
            DR: Well, here is a cup

            It is the most god damn insulting thing ever.

            They start from the position that all women can’t possible know what is going on, and finish with, well clearly you are a dirty liar.

            1. fposte*

              I don’t think the decisions are that individual, though. It’s “This is the procedure; the easiest thing for us is following the procedure, and we get in almighty trouble if we don’t.”

              1. anaon for this...*

                I can understand if it is policy…but, why pretend you will even believe what I tell you? Just tell me you have to because of policy. Don’t be a condescending prick about it, and don’t pretend you are even gong to care what my answer is.

                In 1 week I will have nicely tied & cauterized tubes…and still not have had sex…and I bet they will STILL not believe me. I have had friends with full hysterectomies *with the documentation to prove it* and the DR still said, well we have to be sure….I’m not sure what anatomy classes he took…but I was concerned by that answer

                1. LBK*

                  As absurd as it sounds, I’m sure that somewhere, somehow, there’s a woman who swore up and down there was no way she could be pregnant, the doctor didn’t make her take the test, and then she ended up being pregnant and sued. Litigious customers are the #1 reason for asinine policies.

              1. anaon for this...*

                It’s much easier to be witty when you are not in major level 9 pain….I was able to give that bastard a good case of stink eye for it though…they were withholding the pain killers until I proved I wasn’t a dirty liar about being pregnant…and as it turns out…level 9 pain > feminist agenda….LMAO

            2. Epsilon Delta*

              FFS. Why don’t they just hand you the cup to begin with, if they are not going to believe your answer.

              1. anaon for this...*

                That’s what I say…like…what’s with the false courtesy? It’s the strangest form of sexism. And the most infuriating for me since I have exactly zero intention or desire to have children. Hence the scheduled tubal ligation. I toyed with complete fallopian tube removal, but decided against it.

                I feel like saying, even if I was pregnant an abortion would be scheduled soon anyway….I highly doubt that would be received well for some reason.

                1. Marisol*

                  I would guess they ask so that if you tell them you could be pregnant, they save the time and expense of the test and avoid xrays altogether.

                  I had no idea this was a standard operating procedure. I thought it was my hospital’s weird policy, possibly created because I live in an area that is economically depressed and they are used to seeing unplanned, teenage pregnancies. I felt incredibly resentful about it.

              2. Chomps*

                Exactly! I fainted once and every person I talked to at urgent care (medical assistant, nurse, doctor) asked if I were pregnant within a time span of about 30 minutes and they still had me take the test. I get that they might want to test anyway, but why even ask? just give me the cup.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  Me, too. I blacked out and got rushed to the hospital. They ran a pregnancy test on me. Told me I was NOT pregnant, which I already knew and sent me home.
                  I was outraged that I had to pay for a test that I did not ask for and did not need. I had no insurance in those days. I paid them five dollars a month until it was paid off. They sent the bill into collection even though I was making the agreed payments.

                  Let’s see. Stress levels UP, blood pressure UP, heart rate UP. I was more stressed out by their constant stoning me than I was by whatever caused me to black out. No one ever studies the effects of their billing practices on human health.

            3. Elizabeth West*

              I’ve had to do this one too. Next time, I’m gonna say, “I’m not capable of parthenogenesis!”
              I don’t get asked as much now, since they know my birth date, though I could still become pregnant.

            4. AnonEMoose*

              I was in the ER a few months ago for what turned out to be gallstones. They did an abdominal X-rays to make sure I didn’t have a blockage when they were testing to figure out what was going on.

              The X-ray tech asked if there was any chance I could be pregnant. I said “I’m [well over 40] years old and had my tubes tied X years ago.” They laughed, dropped the subject, and took the X-ray. I can’t swear they didn’t do a pregnancy test on the urine sample they asked for, but they didn’t push the issue after I told them that.

              (I will say, as ER visits go – those weren’t bad at all – took 2 to figure out what was happening). But both times, the staff was competent and caring, and neither doctor was the least bit dismissive – the second one actually insisted on giving me a prescription for painkillers in case I ended up needing it, even though I wasn’t actually in that much pain. And he got me in with a surgeon for a consult within the week.)

              1. Not So NewReader*

                I had one person sneak a saliva swab on me. “OH here are the results of your saliva swab.” I said when did you even take a sample? She made me feel stupid because I did not even realize she had taken a sample. I said “You need to clearly tell people that you are taking samples and what they are for.”

                I still don’t know how she got that sample. I assume I would have had to open my mouth at some point. I started thinking that she faked it and billed me for it.

            5. TL -*

              It depends on what it is (and doctors are just donkeys) but there are medications/tests where pregnancy tests first are standard of care. And to be fair, the ER doc *doesn’t* know you as a patient at all. I would be really annoyed at my GP doing it unless indicated (I had to take one for my IUD insertation; they were like, yup, we know you’re not pregnant but this is standard of care and non-invasive) but not so much at an ER doc.

              1. the_scientist*

                So, as a former EMT I wanted to note that it’s a pretty standard policy to ask women about pregnancy and do a lab test for it anyway in the ED. It’s mostly a butt-covering policy because there are medications and stuff that can be really harmful to a pregnancy and people are litigious. But also, if you are a sexually active woman and presenting with abdominal pain, it is impossible to rule out an ectopic pregnancy without a pregnancy test and sometimes an ultrasound. Ectopic pregnancies aren’t terribly common, so abdominal pain is *usually* not that, but a ruptured ectopic pregnancy can be fatal, so physicians absolutely need to do their due diligence to rule it out.

              2. Not So NewReader*

                Well, fine then they need to say so.
                “Because you are not patient here [insert other reason] our SOP is to do a pregnancy test first.”Fine. I am okay with that.

                What rankles me is asking me and then running the test anyway. I am not a five year old, this is how five year olds are dealt with.

                1. TL -*

                  They ask because if you say yes, they can avoid running the test. They should be answering, “Why?” with “because it can be potentially dangerous to unborn fetuses and we need to run it” which is basically saying “SOP.”

                  ERs are busy places that are interested only in patching you up and getting you out as quickly as possible. This is their purpose in the medical system, it’s not a bad thing! But it does mean that they’re not always great about bedside manner or taking the time to explain things to you.
                  While those are things you should look for from your GP or specialists, the ER’s job is to save as many lives and limbs as quickly as possible, first and foremost. Other things go to the wayside. They don’t want to argue about whether or not you’re pregnant or see if you’re compliant. They want to get the information necessary as quickly/accurately as possible. The easiest way to do that, in this case, is to ask and confirm a no with a test.

            6. Sunrise Farm*

              In my case I actually had to call in my OB/GYN who informed them that if I were pregnant I would be on a slab. I have a rare genetic disorder. Pregnancy would kill me. It was in my chart and they still wouldn’t believe me!

          3. LBK*

            Mommy tracking refers to employers assuming that women will prioritize being a mother over career growth opportunities. It results in employers not investing as much time and effort to develop women professionally, since they assume that women will either want to stay in an easier low-level job that will give them more flexibility to take care of their kids or they’ll just outright quit to become a SAHM. It contributes heavily to the wage gap and lack of representation of women in higher management roles.

            1. Marisol*

              Oh, you mean like, they are put on a “mommy” career track. I thought it was more about monitoring a woman to see when/if she was pregnant–keeping track of her uterus. Kind of related ideas I guess.

  6. Viktoria*

    WOW. This is outrageous. I hope OP advocates strongly on behalf of his employees and this decision is reversed.

    I’m a little surprised at the focus on pregnancy/plans to get pregnant from the employment lawyer. Given that theoretical plans to become pregnant, as well as early pregnancy, is not generally something shared with the employer, it seems like a strange place to draw the line. If I were in this situation and that were really the deciding factor, I would definitely develop some immediate and fictional vague plans to get pregnant. Or, a fictional positive pregnancy test that- oops! turned out to be a chemical pregnancy a couple days later.

    It’s pretty absurd to put anyone in that situation though. I would definitely not plan to pay, looking for a new job, and would be looking into whether they could legally withhold that money from my paycheck if I didn’t pay. (Probably varies by state). As the employees’ manager, I would think the OP could make a strong case against driving out valued employees over something so absurdly petty.

    1. J*

      This. Could the employee be required to demonstrate to HR that she is actively trying to get pregnant? That’s just 10 shades of ick right there.

      1. Viktoria*

        Oh, I realized that- I’m just surprised that that’s where the law would draw the line. (Not questioning that it’s the case).

      2. Sunrise Farm*

        Actually, she’s only talking about a narrow issue in federal law. There may be other federal laws dealing with healthcare or state laws that would also make this prohibited. So these women really need to go to someone local who can access the situation.

        That’s part of what several women have been saying on here. Donnas analysis may have been correct, but it’s certainly not complete. Unless she’s an expert in a lot of the jurisdiction read these women live in an expert in healthcare law she really can’t say anything beyond what she’s already said. I don’t know, maybe she’s competent to make those decisions, but the question she answered is not the only question to be asked.

        This is why people should not get legal advice from websites. Your advice on the managerial aspects were spot on. But no one can give advice on a legal issue over the Internet because you don’t know the entire situation.

        1. Sunrise Farm*

          I’ll give you an example of this specifically. California prevents firing on a lot of ground that are not covered by federal law and are not covered by any other state in union. They also have fairly stringent laws on healthcare information and political affiliation. So if you ask someone is there a federal law prohibiting x, they’d be right. They would, however, he totally an error if that’s where they stop the analysis and the employee lived in California

    1. Sunrise Farm*

      She also didn’t discuss any potential state law of remedies. The answer was very narrow in scope. Even if correct, it’s not definitive .

  7. Murphy*

    I would think this would be incredibly unfair to women trying to get pregnant as well. When I got pregnant, I made the decision to go off birth control pills in a set month, and I wouldn’t be willing to go back on it just for a work trip (I know there are backup methods, etc.) and further delay my plans for 2 months.

    And as others have said, you can easily be pregnant without knowing it, trying or not.

    Kudos to you, OP for supporting your employees.

  8. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    “Sometimes companies attempting to do jerk-ish things will reverse course if people object loudly enough. Not always, but enough of the time that it’s worth a shot.”

    Usually companies will back management decisions, regardless of how “jerk-ish” those decisions are. Especially if it’s one they can’t back away from without undermining a manager or “losing face.”


    1. INTP*

      Companies usually back decisions made by higher-level management, but if this was just an HR decision, upper management might not object to swooping in and looking like the hero by interfering (even if they would never have cared enough to without loud objections being made). I think it’s worth a try.

  9. LawCat*

    Gross. If I were one of the employees who received an invoice, I would not pay it. If the company took it from my wages, I’d be looking for another job. When I got another job, I’d be seeking recovery of my stolen pay. And I’d be on Glassdoor about it.

  10. irritable vowel*

    This is just a crappy “policy” from the company, full stop. The Zika thing is almost a red herring in this case. What if someone gets sick, or has a family emergency, and can’t go on the retreat at the last minute? The company is really going to be so petty as to charge them for their unused plane ticket? Maybe the company shouldn’t be flying the whole staff to an exotic location for an unnecessary event if they’re apparently so short of cash that they need the extra few hundred bucks.

    1. OP*

      Exactly. My view is that the cost of the flights are sunk cost and the company should accept the risk of paying for a lavish retreat to Miami, not the individual employees.


      1. emma*

        Mad props to you, OP, for advocating for your employees. This is the kind of stuff that really kills morale, but it would help to have a manager on your side.

      2. Navy Vet*

        OP – Now that the company in theory knows your employees are possibly trying to conceive, you need to watch for discrimination on that front…if they are this nasty about a plane ticket, what will they do at the thought of covering for a pregnant employee after she gives birth?

      3. Sunrise Farm*

        Please have these three women go talk to a local attorney who specializes in employment law. I’m not sure that the advice given here is actually correct or comprehensive. There may be state law ground upon which this could be fought.

        I normally don’t advise the nuclear option of a letter from a lawyer, however, this case may just warrant it.

    2. Merida May*

      This is such a great point. I struggle to recall an occasion where we have had 100% attendance at office outings that have taken place at locations two streets over, never mind a situation that requires a multiple day commitment with airplanes and hotels. I’m wondering if there were other absences from this retreat, and how they were handled by comparison.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      The Zika thing is almost a red herring in this case. What if someone gets sick, or has a family emergency, and can’t go on the retreat at the last minute? The company is really going to be so petty as to charge them for their unused plane ticket?

      I’m sure the company’s position would be that an illness or family emergency were beyond the employee’s control, which doesn’t apply to their refusal to travel to a Zika area. (Not saying I agree, just that this would most likely be their stance.)

  11. emma*

    As someone who is trying to get pregnant, this would make me feel horrible about my company. As others have said, you don’t necessarily know that you’re pregnant until it’s test-able, so it’s entirely possible that you could be pregnant on this trip without knowing. If this happened to me, I would feel so uncomfortable for having to tell my company that I was planning pregnancy, and also put in a bind– either forced to go on the trip and risk potential birth defects, or not go and have to pay for the trip. Lose-lose.

    1. orchidsandtea*

      And the information about zika is still changing — OK, great, right now they’re saying 8 weeks before conception, but I’ve heard 6 month advisories recently. Pregnancy isn’t always intentional, and some employees have religious reasons to not prevent pregnancy. It’s such a tricky, private area of life. Not something the company should be getting involved in.

      1. Anon in NOVA*

        Yes, there’s studies showing it can live in men’s S3m3n for up to six months. I would definitely urge my husband not to go if we were trying to conceive, which would put him in an uncomfortable position.

    2. Natalie*

      Worse, it sounds like they weren’t informed that they would have to pay for the trip until afterwards.

  12. Katie the Fed*

    Uh, no. The company shouldn’t have bought flights for people they knew couldn’t go. That’s someone else’s screwup, not these women’s.

  13. AndersonDarling*

    I’m assuming that the women who did not attend the retreat told the organizer that they weren’t going to go. If they just didn’t show up at the airport, then I would understand that the company would be upset.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      I’m also assuming that the company had a means for employees to decline. They may just send a date and destination and expect everyone will drop their plans to attend.

    2. SlickWilly*

      Right. Something tells me that we don’t have the whole story, and perhaps these employees no-showed. What company would buy tickets for everyone without knowing whether they were able to attend? What if there were other circumstances? If it really was a no-show, I’d have to side with the company on this one.

  14. LizM*

    It’s not clear to me whether the tickets were purchased before people objected to going to Miami. Either way, ick.

    Regardless, people have to cancel work travel for a variety of reasons. If companies don’t want to eat that cost, they should purchase refundable tickets. If they choose not to pay the extra fee for refundable tickets, they run the risk that those tickets go unused.

    1. Meg Murry*

      Yes, and it’s also not clear to me what steps the employees that decided not to travel took before the trip (or what steps the boss took). I’m assuming they didn’t just no-show and decide at the last minute not to go without telling anyone, but rather informed someone that they weren’t planning to attend and to cancel their accommodations.

      If the employees completely no-showed or only told their manager but there was no follow through on what they needed to do to cancel plane tickets, etc, *then* maybe I could see that charging them for the plane tickets isn’t such a terrible way to act (although not especially a nice way to deal with it). Or if the women signed up to go and then were told that if they backed out after the tickets were purchased they would have to pay that cost.

      OP – are your 3 employees the *only* ones that didn’t go? Or were there others, that also didn’t go?

      Who’s budget did the plane tickets come out of? If your department, you would have paid whether they went or not, so can you authorize the tickets to come out of your budget anyway? It seems to me that a retreat is for employee morale – and I can’t think of a better way to kill morale than to tell people that they have to pay for plane tickets they didn’t use.

  15. Meg*

    My department was considering a conference to Miami for next spring, but we decided to move it elsewhere for this exact reason (we wanted all of our employees, male and female to feel comfortable attending). I bet the Miami conference industry is really hurting.

  16. Anon in NOVA*

    This surely can’t be the firs time this issue has come up. If they do a retreat annually, I’d think there has to be a precedent for individuals being unable to make it at the last minute (If my kid’s appendix explodes and he’s in the hospital, I’m not flying to Miami, for example).

    And, as many others have pointed out, you can be pregnant and not get a positive pregnancy result. Also, what if someone got a positive result the day before the trip, would they still have to pay? And how can the company prove someone didn’t have a chemical pregnancy (a positive pee test but the pregnancy didn’t stick). That’s not always something there’s a medical record for…

    1. INTP*

      Yeah, this is making me wonder if they actually take issue with the pregnancy aspect of this situation. Surely they haven’t had 100% attendance at every retreat ever, never had someone back out of a conference or work trip, and I feel like if they were invoicing everyone when this happened, someone would have heard of it.

      It seems like they’re creating an issue because it was multiple people skipping out for the same reason, a gendered/pregnancy situation, or someone in HR screwed up majorly in ordering tickets for people that weren’t going and is trying to avoid taking the blame.

  17. Crazy Canuck*

    Wow, this one makes me see red. I know for a fact that in my home province, BC, this is flat-out illegal, under section 21.2 of the employment standards act. (I’ve had a few bosses in the past outraged at how they couldn’t deduct wages for lost or damaged equipment.) In Alberta you could only do this if the employee signed papers beforehand. I’m fuzzy on the rest of the provinces, but I believe that most of them have similar clauses that only allow deductions permitted by law.

    As for actual advice to the letter writer, I like Calallily’s idea about going to the media. A little bad press, and I suspect this whole thing will disappear like a bad dream.

  18. My 2 Cents*

    So, if I am trying to get pregnant or want to get pregnant, I’m now required to tell my employer this very personal detail in order to get them to be decent human beings and not discriminate against me?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, not with a decent company. The law doesn’t protect against the full range of crappy employer behavior; there will always be limitations.

      But this is similar to how you may need to disclose a disability to get an accommodation for it.

      1. Navy Vet*

        As a way to bypass the reason for not wishing to attend, could these women get notes from their Drs stating they can’t travel for medical reasons…leave it vague and use HIPPA as a cover for the details?

        1. fposte*

          A doctor’s note has no force in law, and there’s nothing in HIPAA that prevents a doctor from giving more information with permission of the patient. Not saying that it wouldn’t work as a dodge, but the law isn’t behind it.

          1. Navy Vet*

            drats. I was hoping for a somewhat “easy” out. Most Drs would understand the reasons a woman would be hesitant to talk to her employer about early pregnancy/conceiving.

            Drives me insane that being pregnant is treated like a great flaw of female employees by many employers in the US.

          2. Sunrise Farm*

            That really depends upon the state in which this occurred and the employee policy manual and the contracts. I have no idea if this has any force of law not. None of us do because we don’t have enough context.

    2. TL -*

      No, but you are required to tell them if you think it’s medically inadvisable to travel to Zika-infested area. Which is fair – how else are the companies supposed to handle this?

      (This company is a prime example of how not to handle it but it’s not unreasonable for them to require a medical reason to not travel somewhere for business.)

    3. JustaTech*

      There are a few industries where you would need to disclose very early for your and your baby’s safety: I used to work in a lab where we occasionally worked with some pretty icky viruses. One of them (yellow fever) can be dangerous in pregnancy, so my (male) boss had a *super* awkward conversation over lunch one day about how if any of us were pregnant we needed to tell him ASAP so we could be taken off that project.
      Or if you work with radiation, there are accommodations.
      But none of that would involve charging anyone for anything. That’s why this is insane.

      1. Emi.*

        And presumably virologists know this is an issue when they take the job, right? Whereas this was just sprung on these poor women out of nowhere. Also, your job sounds cool!

        1. the_scientist*

          Yup, this is one of those interesting things about working in labs. I know someone who had to tell the facility director about her pregnancy before she told her own parents, because she needed to be moved off a project using a particularly nasty chemical. It’s definitely awkward and probably not ideal, but it goes with working in this field.

      2. Gaia*

        Yep. We have a policy for our employees who work on certain projects need to disclose pregnancy early. We remind regularly that the work being done on these projects can suddenly change in a way that is not at all dangerous to grown adult humans but is incredibly dangerous to small little embryos.

      3. Natalie*

        I went to a very small college, and when I took chemistry my class of like, seven total, had to have an awkward conversation with the professor about disclosing pregnancy due to one of the experiments we were doing.

      4. Sled Dog Mama*

        Yes, I work in Radiation and three times my boss has been the second person to know right after my husband, one of those times I had a miscarriage a month later and had to go back and explain but I’d much rather be having that conversation than later in pregnancy find out that I had exceeded the max dose.
        The law (in the US) requires that once I declare that I’m pregnant they have to monitor radiation dose to the fetus and that it cannot exceed a certain level. The law definitely provides for modifying duties to control exposure and I think prevents retaliation (not sure if thats explicit or implied). But the key part of that law is that you have to declare a pregnancy to your employer, it specifies that the employer should make a good faith effort to estimate dose prior to the pregnancy declaration but that they are not responsible for excessive fetal dose before you declare a pregnancy.

  19. Joseph*

    Can I just point out how dumb this is by the company? Even if you want to look in the most cold-blooded, unemotional fiscal perspective, I can’t even imagine in what world this makes sense. Your downsides are all of the following (and probably more!):
    (i) Multiple employees who are actively ticked off and unhappy.
    (ii) These employees (who are presumably good employees if you paid for them to travel to a conference) very well might conclude the company doesn’t care about them and leave.
    (iii) Other employees will hear about this and be horrified, possibly starting to wonder about their own futures.
    (iv) Potential legal issues – even if you were sure you were legally in the clear (you’re really that certain that none of these women are pregnant/trying to become pregnant?), the cost to prove it isn’t cheap.
    (v) A load of wasted time from the employees, OP, and HR (plus potentially higher-ups).
    And you’re going through all of this for…the cost of 3 airline tickets. No way that’s more than like $1500 total, probably a lot less given that the tickets were clearly purchased well in advance. For a company that clearly isn’t living on a financial cliff, given that they can afford to fly their entire staff to a Miami hotel for several days.

    1. KP84*

      Very good points Joseph. This is one of those boneheaded decisions that is going to cost the company a lot more in long run than if they just ate the costs of the tickets.

    2. Sunflower*

      All of this. If we were talking about the company losing a large chunk of $$, that would be a different story. Even for a small company, $900 may be a lot but THEY ALREADY PLANNED FOR THOSE COSTS!!! The company didn’t even LOSE any money over this or pay additional costs. I would LOVE to know who’s idea it was to charge these women. Ridiculous.

    3. BeautifulVoid*

      Agreed. And even if the end result of this is that the women don’t have to pay for the unused tickets, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they start looking for other jobs since the HR department in this company has shown itself to be so short-sighted and petty.

    4. AnonAnalyst*

      This. I used to work in corporate event planning, so I’m very familiar with what the cost all-in typically runs for an event like this to a top-tier destination like Miami. The cost of those plane tickets compared to the total the company shelled out for this event is miniscule. Even if they were full fare tickets (which they clearly weren’t, since they were not refundable), it would still be a tiny fraction of the overall cost to the company for the event.

      This just seems like sour grapes. I honestly see no other reason that a company that shelled out that much money for an event would even care about getting reimbursed for those tickets.

      1. zora*

        Yeah, seriously. My Ex-Job did something similar, totally freaked out about paying me $125 total in overtime for working at a big event in another state, when I was the one receiving the bill from the hotel…. for $800,000. And that was only about a quarter of total costs for the event.

        I don’t understand what people are thinking sometimes.

    5. Violet Fox*

      I would also think that should a company have a policy about airline tickets and reimbursement, that this is something that should be clearly written and spelled out to employees *before* trips are purchased, and before RSVPing for things like retreats is even allowed. Otherwise, no matter the reason that people could not go, it seems arbitrary and capricious.

    6. Not So NewReader*

      From first hand experience: Word goes right around. EVERYONE knows what happened and why.
      The next thing that happens is that the company gets closely watched for its next misstep. With a number of people watching it is not usually very long and the company starts getting calls for the DOL.
      OP, you can say this stuff because it’s true.

      If employees can not get their points across on one issue they will look around for other issues. Unhappy employees do this routinely.

      While I think that the company’s attitude toward family sucks here if the employees cannot be heard here, they will raise another point. For example: Will the company show those air fares in their tax deductions? Since the air fares were reimbursed by the employees the company should not be saying that it was an expense. They got that money back.
      Now. Will the employees be given receipts to show proof of payment? Can the employees take it off their taxes? (I am betting the answer is no, but JUST asking that question can drive home a point.)

      Any (shady) place I have worked for who has demanded reimbursement has deducted it from the employees paycheck. So it’s gone. You can ask the higher ups to inform you how this will be handled so that employees can plan their budgets around the hit.

      Last point. You want to mention rumor control. Stories like this go public fast. Especially around the community where the employer is located. It really undoes the work that PR/advertising do.

      I like Alison’s point about going down below minimum wage. Some times battles like this are fought with a calculator. I have won a few battles with my calc, we are talking slam dunk WON. Keep your calculator handy.Good luck and thanks for standing up for your people.

  20. INTP*

    If these people did not sign anything agreeing to pay for plane tickets, whether specifically these or a general policy, I don’t understand how this could be legal, discrimination or not. You can’t create a legal obligation for someone to pay you money by retroactively sending them an invoice, especially an invoice for a purchase they didn’t know was being made in the first place. If the people didn’t pay for the tickets, what exactly could the company do? They could deduct it from paychecks, but I imagine would be legally obligated to return it if demanded.

    Are people just saying it’s “legal” in the sense that the employer has the right to make paying this money a condition of continued employment? As in, the employer can’t actually collect the money, but can fire the women for not handing it over? I think if I were one of these women I’d be willing to play that game of chicken.

    1. Jessie*

      Yes, this is driving me batty about this thread today. It’s from an employment law standpoint only, but there is contract and sales law to consider here.

    2. Natalie*

      Basically, yes, in the area of employment law it’s legal because the employees can be fired or disciplined for not paying. There’s nothing in contract law that requires them to pay, though, so they could quit and the company wouldn’t be able to (successfully) pursue them for the money.

      1. fposte*

        Right, even in the states where the employee would have to sign permission for the deduction, it’s not illegal (in the ones I know, anyway) to fire the employee for refusing to sign the permission.

        1. INTP*

          Thanks, that makes more sense. I still feel like HR would probably get gun-shy when it came down to doing the paperwork to fire three women against their manager’s wishes for refusing to comply with a retroactive financial penalty for not going to a Zika-infested zone for pregnancy-related reasons (or Legal would stop them), but I understand that the OP isn’t asking how to fight it, just how to support his employees.

  21. Advice for OP*

    OP I suggest you reach out to your local health department. I work in public health and we fielded a lot of these situations surrounding Ebola. They may be able to explain to your company why women of childbearing age not on birth control should not travel there, and how serious the effects could be if one of their employees had contracted the virus while pregnant or right before getting pregnant.

    Also, is there a case for religious discrimination if someone is a practicing catholic? Federal government says if you’re of childbearing age and not on birth control to not go to an area, but your religion prohibits birth control… what are you supposed to do?

    1. catholic&anonymous*

      Don’t CDC recommendations count natural family planning/fertility awareness for these purposes? That said, I think there are some Protestant churches that don’t practice NFP.

      1. Alli525*

        The majority of Protestant denominations don’t even know what NFP is, let alone practice it! If they’re generally aware of “Catholic birth control,” they call it that, or “the rhythm method,” which as you know really doesn’t accurately describe NFP. Pretty much all Protestants I know use birth control without any sort of moral conflict, which is the one thing that I find crappy about my conversion to Catholicism.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      I’m surprised that no one here has talked about going to the company’s legal department and talking to them. I worked in an F100 company and many times HR would pull stunts that were completely illegal (wage theft, etc.) . A couple of times I emailed legal and got them involved. HR backed off pretty quickly.
      This sounds more like HR made plans and wasn’t willing to change them. They failed to take any steps that would reduce the financial impacts of the employees not going (like seeking a refund). In addition, there may be local (state) level laws in play here.
      Really, contact your legal department and see what they say. At a minimum, you’ll have more information if you need to talk to the CEO about this. Yes, talk to the CEO – call HR’s bluff.

      1. Honeybee*

        Probably because there’s nothing illegal about requiring an employee to travel to a Zika zone (or really any public health advisory zone), and there’s not even a clear-cut case of pregnancy discrimination here.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          But the company made no steps to reduce the impact of their financial losses.
          This isn’t about discrimination. It’s about the charging for the financial burden of the tickets. There are limits and laws for this.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I think you have a very good point about this.
            The legal department might say something to the effect of “It’s not illegal, but it will raise enough eyebrows that the company can expect problems from it.”

            So while not illegal, lawyers still have to get paid to explain to the judge why the company was NOT wrong. It could be cheaper to just pay the damn tickets.

  22. E*

    The 8 week rule from the CDC is very wishy washy. If you actually contract zika, there’s no good guideline on when it’s safe to get pregnant, and there’s also not readily available tests for zika if you’re not already pregnant. I’m not TTC at the moment but will be in the next year or so and I’m avoiding all personal travel to zika areas. I also have an infant who I won’t take to zika areas because I’m not convinced we know what the long term impacts may be on brain development. Seems like the more we learn, the worse it gets.

    1. JustaTech*

      The latest I’ve heard is that it’s not good for adults either; it may cause testicular shrinkage, brain problems and joint problems, possibly long after the infection has cleared.

      1. JennyFair*

        I’d bet a year’s supply of tampons that if someone had pointed out possible testicular shrinkage during the planning phase, the retreat would not have been in Miami.

      2. Honeybee*

        No, what has happened is that scientists found evidence of testicular shrinkage in animal testing (with mice). They used a special altered form of the Zika virus that is able to grow well in mice. I can’t see the full paper because Nature requires a subscription, but there’s also no indication of what percent of the mice this actually affected and how much of the virus they were infected with. Often times in studies using animal models, the animals are affected with many times the contaminant a human would be exposed to.

        The one study that was done on brain damage and Zika was also done on mouse models. In this study, the scientists deliberately infected the mice with Zika by injecting it directly behind their eye. The mice were also TKO mouse, meaning that they are genetically engineered to be susceptible to the Zika virus and to lack the immune system necessary to fight it.

        The mice were not observed “long after” the infection had cleared, so there’s no way to draw conclusions about that either.

        These studies are important first steps in understanding Zika, but they alone are not nearly enough evidence to make any recommendations about human behavior in Zika zones. There is no evidence that Zika will affect humans in the same way and what the incidence rate would be even if it did.

  23. lamuella*

    “Indeed, the CDC also advised men who were planning to get pregnant in the near future (poor wording but I assume they meant men who are planning to impregnate someone in the near future) avoid nonessential travel to Miami.”

    Just to very quickly note here than some men can and do get pregnant. The CDC’s wording probably wasn’t an attempt to include transgender people (I don’t know as I haven’t read it) but I thought it was worth pointing out.

    1. KP84*

      Lamuella, unfortunately I am sure the CDC did not even consider the fact that transgender men can get pregnant when writing the guidelines but its nice that the way they wrote does include transgender men!

    2. Mononymous*

      I wish the language by the CDC had been more generic, as in, “people who are planning to conceive.” But, alas.

  24. Sunflower*

    As an event planner, and with Miami being one of the top spots we sponsor(we very rarely hold out own events, just sponsor so we are at the mercy of their calls on location), Zika is at the top of discussion all the time. There is a lot of mixed info between ‘what we know’ and ‘what we aren’t sure of yet’ it seems like. My friend, who is looking to get pregnant not anytime soon but in the new few years, was advised by her doctor to change her honeymoon to a non-Zika affected area. My boss is extremely paranoid about it and is not trying to get pregnant. We are trying to move our company retreat from FL to a non-affected area in the US. The hotel has been giving us major issues and wants us to promise we will return to FL in 3 years- meaning even they are concerned about what the status will be in a few years.

    The company SHOULD NOT have made these women pay. That’s insane. Our company has made it VERY clear that we are not to travel for work to any Zika areas for if we do not want to. As far as moving the retreat/future retreats, well that’s something that the company will need to decide on a case by case basis. A lot of our events in Miami are for an industry that is heavily comprised of older males so they haven’t been to concerned. It seems like it would be tough to deal with this in a court of law. OP- my guess is others are as outraged as you regarding this. If you can get enough of you together, maybe you can talk to HR or whoever made this decision to get then to realize how ridiculous this is.

    1. Central Perk Regular*

      I got married about six months ago, and my husband and I are wanting to start actively trying for a baby next year. We had originally planned to go to the Caribbean for our honeymoon, but instead chose to go an European cruise because of Zika concerns.

      TBH, this sounds like something my old company would have pulled. They used to have events similar to this, and if I had been trying to get pregnant when I was attending these events, it would have made me super uncomfortable to disclose that I was trying to conceive. It was kind of a “good ole boys club” to begin with, and this information, in my opinion, would have made it worse.

      I really commend the OP for wanting to stand up for his employees – I’m sure if nothing else, that means the world to his staff.

  25. animaniactoo*

    I am only sort of joking here – have the women and their spouses sign notarized affidavits that they’ve been banging like rabbits trying to get pregnant.

    This was poor planning on the part of the company and they’re trying to force the employees to pay for it. I would suggest also approaching it from that angle:

    1) They picked a location and laid down a non-refundable deposit (how much was that deposit btw? Often it’s not more than 20%, so I’m curious that they were unwilling to lose it in the face of serious concerns from their employees).

    2) Knowing that there were major reservations, they purchased plane tickets without making sure the employees would actually be attending.

    Fwiw, I would also push the point that info on Zika is constantly changing and updating (last I saw CDC was recommending 6 months, not 8 weeks) and that there is not yet nearly enough info to determine if it is really true that there are no natal or birth defect issues if you had Zika but become pregnant after you recovered from it.

    So even in choosing the location, the company made a major screwup in asking their employees to go there in the first place.

    I am strongly willing to bet that somebody (or several somebodies) in the upper echelons thinks all this concern over Zika is hysterical nonsense and is therefore unwilling to acknowledge that the employees had valid issues in the first place. If you can quietly investigate that tack, you might be able to get somebody to talk sense into that person. “All we would need is one employee who turned out to have been 2 weeks pregnant to contract Zika on this retreat where the location wasn’t necessary to the running of the business and we’d be in a world of trouble given that the concerns were raised prior to the trip. I think it’s important not to look like we don’t care about our employees’ health.”

    1. Anon Two*

      As for 1 & 2 it really depends on the size of the retreat/meeting. If it was for a handful of employees (say less than 25-50), then there is no reason that the retreat needed to be in that location at all. But, if it was for hundreds or even thousands of employee’s, then the location was probably selected several years ago, the deposit would be in the hundreds of thousands, and the insurance policies that cover cancellation of these kinds of events don’t tend to cover things like Zika (unless you have a special rider).

      With that said, asking an employee to pay for a ticket that is cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  26. Anon Two*

    The whole Zika thing is tricky. Where I work we just held a meeting in an area with Zika. Our policy was that any employee assigned to staff the meeting could choose not to go if they had concerns about Zika. We would eat their plane tickets. Our legal counsel advised us if we required staff to go to the meeting and they caught Zika and there were long-term health effects due to the virus that the employee could and probably would sue us. Losing a few hundred or thousand dollars is chump chain compared to being sued, so we ate the cost of anyone who didn’t want to go because of Zika.

    1. Kate*

      Great point! A lot of people focus on the pregnancy part of Zika’s dangers, a lot of people don’t seem to realize that although rare Zika can also cause horribly debilitating nerve/muscle conditions in adults.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      A good example for OP to use with the bosses. OP, maybe you can find the names of companies that are doing this by googling.

      Some companies “look up” to other Big Name Companies. So if you can find a Big Name Company taking this stance it might be an additional pursuasive talking point.

  27. Mimmy*

    Hmm this is a tricky one. At the very least, I think employers and employees alike should check the CDC website for the latest updates and information on the Zika outbreak before committing to a work event/conference in the questionable areas. Then, any concerns can be discussed, though the issue of whether an employee is looking to start a family is a gray area.

  28. CrispyBearcat*

    Good for you OP, 1000 karma points for #1 standing with your team and #2 understanding that women do sometimes have medical issues male decision makers have not considered!

    If it were me (I am a female payroll manager and a member of HR) I would contact accounting directly because it is possible they have no idea what the reasons for not attending were and are simply following protocol. Lots of companies are TERRIBLE at communication between departments and HR and accounting are notorious for not playing well together. If accounting knows the reason then it is possible an exception or procedure change can be made. If all else fails, make an anonymous tip to the ethics hotline (if there is one). If the ladies do go to the CEO and s/he disagrees then they have placed a HUGE target on their backs (same goes for OP).

  29. Justin*

    What’s the legality of sticking the employees with the airfare cost in general, no matter the reason? Isn’t there some legal standard of making employers cover their own business costs?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Depends on how it’s done. If it’s a question of reimbursing an expense the employee charged herself (which I don’t think is the case here), it varies by state. California has the strongest protections against it, but most states don’t address it. But if it’s a question of a company racking up an expense and then presenting the employee with a bill, most states do have limitations on how that can work, including requiring advance notice in most (all?) cases and prior agreement in some. So I think there’s a decent change this “bill” would be unenforceable, although I don’t know for sure without knowing more details, the state, etc.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But that’s just about whether the bill could be collected on. As far as I know, you could be fired for refusing to pay. (But I’d be willing to bet that if all the affected people banded together and refused, they wouldn’t fire all of them.)

        1. Justin*

          Right, and there’s nothing illegal about issuing an unenforceable invoice, you just don’t get your money and have no legal recourse to try to get it.

          1. Dan*

            Well, you can sue someone or refer them to collection, which are both legal recourses to try and get it, even if they are ultimately going to be unsuccessful.

            Debt collectors can play very dirty, even outright violating the law on a regular basis.

            1. Emilia Bedelia*

              Not to be pedantic, but when you say “outright violating the law”….that means not legal.

  30. Happy Cynic*

    Dear All HR People Everywhere:

    This is one of those situations where it’s clear HR isn’t necessarily some default go-to authority who’s advocating for the employee.

    This is why some of us bristle at the idea that HR is going to step in and magically provide a fair way through. From other comments I’ve seen on here, it sounds like some people might be shocked – SHOCKED! – that employees might have cause to mistrust you, but sometimes we do. And this is one of those times.

    1. Marisol*

      This could be said of all categories of work associates though. This site deals with behavioral fails in the workplace. So the mistrust could equally apply to bosses, coworkers, spouses of coworkers, clients, etc.

        1. Happy Cynic*

          I used a whole lot of back-off language like “sometimes”, “one of those situations”, “isn’t necessarily”, and “might”. But thank you for pointing out how I tarred and feathered every last employee, Reddit.

      1. Happy Cynic*

        In my humble experience, no one clutches their pearls at being called untrustworthy quite like HR.

        Everyone else seems to know we’re capables of being ****oles.

  31. k*

    Question for OP – Is the retreat mandatory? Have there been situations in the past where employees did not attend?

    I’m trying to imagine a scenario where the company would have reason to believe that this is a logical response to the situation, but I’m at a loss.

    1. OP*

      The retreat is not mandatory, but you basically have to have a legitimate reason to not go. And you’re expected to work if you aren’t attending. There are employees that choose not to attend.

      The difficulty was in the order of events:

      1) Retreat location was announced.
      2) Survey was sent on whether employees were attending or not.
      3) Zika concerns were announced a week later by the CDC.
      4) Women (who had said they were going to attend) voiced concerns about attending because it was in Miami.
      5) After it became clear there wouldn’t be any change in where the retreat was held, women asked that their flights not be purchased.
      6) HR/Operations told the women their flights had already been purchased and “Unfortunately our policy has to be if we’re on the hook for your cancellation, then you are.”
      7) Retreat happens.
      8) Invoices sent.


      1. Natalie*

        I think your items #4-6 is where I would focus with your management – these employees acted in good faith. They expressed their concerns and cancelled their survey responses with a reasonable amount of notice, and they deserve the company to act in good faith back and treat this as a legitimate reason for not going.

        1. INTP*

          Totally agree with this. Plus, they didn’t cost the company any money – it’s not like the company had to purchase tickets for people to go in their place, or lost out on income from sales not made or services not performed. They actually saved money, since they didn’t have meals and transportation to expense from the trip. It would have been a bit more justifiable if the company could argue that they couldn’t afford to pay for the trip unless it was actually taken (still not right imo, but more defensible argument). In this case, though, they can’t argue that it was a financial necessity to recoup the cost of the tickets, it’s purely retaliation against these women for not going.

      2. Engineer Girl*

        Did the company purchase the tickets after the women voiced their concerns? It seems like there is a delay between voicing their concern and the company doubling down on the location. I’d try to find out the date of the ticket purchase.
        If the company bought the tickets after the women voiced their concerns you have a better case. Or, if the company bought the tickets after the CDC announcement you also might have a case.
        Were these tickets cheap-o non-refundable? Did company make a good faith effort to reduce the impact of their costs by trying to get a refund? All of this info comes into play.

      3. LizM*

        I also think that the communication in #2 is relevant. That is where the cancellation policy should have been disclosed. (I absolutely think the policy is ridiculous, but if the company is in fact going to maintain it, it should be disclosed when asking employees to commit to travel).

        1. Natalie*

          That, and it was presented as a survey. If I was an employee I wouldn’t have taken that as an ironclad “agree to go to this retreat”. I would have assumed there was some second RSVP stage.

        2. CanCan*

          Absolutely! It’s a ridiculous policy. The logic behind it is probably to prevent people from changing their decision to go after the company has already bought the ticket, – i.e. purely for disincentive purposes. However, this only makes sense if the policy is brought to people’s attention at the time they commit to going (and not just sitting somewhere on the server).

          What should have happened:
          1) – 4) same as above
          5) Company should then have put a stop on buying the tickets, and then after deciding that the location was not going to be changed, should have re-sent the questionnaire.

          Or, if they had already bought the tickets before the employees voiced their concerns about the location, the company should just suspend this policy for this trip.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Plus, these things are usually planned months in advance. There should have been an initial interest survey and then another final rsvp at some point. Maybe they thiif they did that, more people would drop out and they’d lose any bulk discounts they may have been getting for blocks of rooms or just plain thought it’d look bad if attendance was half what it normally is.

        3. INTP*

          Agree, or at the very least, a “this is your final chance to back out” email before tickets were purchased.

          The fact that they haven’t been open about this policy in general, and it doesn’t seem to have come up frequently in the past (surely these aren’t the first people to cancel a retreat or work trip), makes me wonder if they only decided to enforce it (or even just came up with it) after these women backed out of this particular trip. That makes it seem suspicious for sure – if not pregnancy discrimination, then retaliation for not going along with the trip and making HR look bad for planning a trip with bad turnout, or a strong-arm message to employees to not band together and try to get out of work retreats (which is not what they were doing, but might be seen that way by an unreasonable person), or something.

      4. k*

        Ah, this clears up a lot. That eliminates a handful of the legal scenarios commenters had been wondering, like if they knew ahead of time that they would be billed.

        Regardless, I think it’s horrible that your company isn’t considering this a legitimate reason not to attend. That is a very real health concern, and there is a lot of conflicting information out there (as proven by previous comments). Especially since it was a retreat, which I’m sure has it’s benefits, but is not a trip essential to functionality of the company.

      5. hbc*

        For 6, if they don’t have an actual policy to point to, I think you can easily show that the one in their heads is either flexible or ridiculous. If I got in a serious car wreck and was in the hospital, would I be getting a bill from them? If a relative died? If a major work issue came up and I couldn’t spare the time on the retreat?

        These people weren’t just casually cancelling because they won concert tickets on the radio or getting so drunk in the airport bar that they missed their flight. Something out of their control changed the situation.

        And that’s besides the fact that the company is out *less* money than they would have been if they were eating hotel breakfasts and whatnot. That means the policy is punitive more than practical, and there’s no reason to punish these employees.

      6. J.B.*

        I would think given the timeline that the possibility of a higher up overruling operations exists. And ugh for mandatory “not mandatory” fun.

      7. Jessie*

        ““Unfortunately our policy has to be if we’re on the hook for your cancellation, then you are.”

        That’s not how that works. They can’t force the women to pay them back, legally. (At least, so it sounds from this order of operations.) As others mentioned upthread, HR could fire them over it. But it doesn’t sound as if the women actually owe them the money.

        In related news, your HR people are horrible. Really, truly horrible.

        1. Jessesgirl72*

          The “take it to the CEO” might be an indicator that the HR people aren’t horrible, but are forced to enforce horrible policy insisted on by the Board.

      8. Not So NewReader*


        It’s three people. Three.
        Is the company in such a precarious state financially that those three unused tickets are going to throw the company into financial ruin?

        So next time the company does this everyone will just say NO. Because now everyone realizes if they don’t go, they will be forced to pay for the ticket. That is what I would do if I worked there, easy peasy, tell them “No, I will not be going.”

      9. Just no*

        As someone who works in the travel industry, I know for a fact that airlines were giving refunds to people who claimed Zika as the reason they could no longer travel to an effected destination (you didn’t even need to be a woman of child bearing age for this to be the case). It is utter BS that the company is charging these women, when they very easily could have been refunded for the cost of those tickets anyway. The women shouldn’t be punished because someone at the company was too stupid/lazy/clueless to call the airlines and ask.

  32. Trout 'Waver*

    I know Zika is unknown and scary, but the actual risk of contracting Zika in Miami is vanishingly small. Out of the 5.5 million residents plus however many tourists in Miami, there have been 182 cases of locally acquired Zika in Miami and the Keys.

    If you stayed indoors and used bug spray, your odds of winning the Powerball on a single ticket would likely be better than contracting Zika on a 3-day trip to Miami.

    I’m not saying that Zika isn’t a major public health concern. But avoiding southern Florida seems like an over-reaction.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      Yes, but if you look at the cost/benefit, there is (for most people) absolutely no cost in avoiding Miami, which makes it a winning proposition even if the benefit is very slight.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Yeah, but every place has inherent risks that are much larger than that. Miami (even with Zika) may actually be safer than where you live right now. It’s highly unlikely that the risk of Zika tips the needle one way or the other.

        1. LizM*

          But this isn’t your decision to make.

          I recently declined to go on a girls weekend to Miami with some friends. This was after speaking to my doctor, and her recommendation not to go. True, a girls weekend is not the same as a company trip, but the principle is that I make decisions about my family planning and reproductive care with my husband and doctor, not with my boss or HR. All HR needs to know is that my doctor recommends against the trip.

        2. fposte*

          But not every place has an individual risk easily avoidable by going to 49 other states instead, and that will, if you gamble wrong, cost you probably $4 mil.

          You can’t just look at the level of risk in isolation–it doesn’t give you the information you need.

      1. fposte*

        I think it would be a grayer area if this were some business-vital trip that it was a huge burden to have elsewhere. But since it’s not, it seems pretty black and white to me. Epidemiological shit happens; don’t blame your employees.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          But where does it stop? You could come up with a risk for any place and use that as an excuse to opt out.

          1. Natalie*

            Eh, I’m not sure we need to determine exactly where the line is to say that “optional company retreat that other people skipped” falls on one side of it.

          2. Myrin*

            I don’t see an inherent problem with that? If you only ever feel safe and like you’re taking no risks in your small town and thus never want to leave it, ever, then that’s your prerogative.

              1. Myrin*

                Absolutely, and I think that someone who is as risk-averse as the person in my example would totally account for that.

          3. JB (not in Houston)*

            This is a little different from “a risk for any place,” though. There is so much we don’t know about Zika, and the CDC actively discourages some demographics from going to Zika-prone areas. Though the risk is small, it’s extremely reasonable for people who might be pregnant or hoping to be/might be in the next six to eight months to avoid going. And this was for a retreat, not a function essential to the business or the performance of anybody’s job. Under the facts we have, we can’t really say it was an overreaction for these women. If we knew they were all, for one reason or another, entirely unable to get pregnant now or in the future, that would change things.

          4. LizM*

            I think the fact that the CDC has a travel advisory in place makes it pretty clear that this isn’t something women are making up. CDC recommends waiting 8 weeks before trying to get pregnant or having unprotected sex. Because there is usually at least a 2 week lag time between insemination and being able to take a test, women would need to also avoid unprotected sex for up to a month before the trip, depending on their cycles, to ensure they weren’t pregnant during the trip.

            This is all based on CDC guidance. Some medical professionals (including my OB-GYN) are taking a more conservative view in their advice.

            It is not unreasonable for a woman to not want to adjust her family planning and sex life for that amount of time to attend a company retreat (especially one that is technically not mandatory, as OP clarified in one of the comments).

          5. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            So if this were a legal issue, in these circumstances, folks would weigh the following factors when determining the reasonableness of avoiding a situation (or protecting against it):

            1. The company knows or should have known a risk exists;
            2. The likelihood (risk) of the bad thing happening;
            3. The severity of harm to an employee if bad thing occurs;
            4. The cost to the company of avoiding said bad thing, either by disclosing information (i.e., warning people), by changing the process to decrease likelihood of bad-thing-occurrence, or by paying to avoid the bad thing (assuming that cost is reasonable/not extreme); and
            4. Public policy.

            Basically, if (likelihood * severity) < cost of avoidance, then the company should suck it up. The issue is not that life is full of risks. It's that the risk, plus the severity of harm if the bad thing occurs, outweighs the cost of the company covering unusued tickets.

            Also, the event isn't mandatory, so I wouldn't recommend a company choose the Zika hill as the site for their last stand.

        2. Katie the Fed*

          I’ve worked in hot war zones. I was fine with that decision at the time. But it was my decision (I’m not in the military). I’ve been trying to get pregnant for 8 months now – I’m not putting that at risk by going to Miami.

          1. LizM*

            I also assume you knew you were taking a job in a war zone, and your compensation reflected that. I seriously doubt that these women were told that they would be exposed to zika as part of their job when they were hired.

    2. Emmbee*

      My OB specifically told me to avoid Florida, Texas, etc. when I went in for my first pregnancy appointment. I think we can allow women and their medical practitioners to make these decisions, versus random internet commenters.

      1. Honeybee*

        I agree with you, but physicians aren’t always up on the latest medical science or advisories. I’ve heard some doctors give some pretty ridiculous recommendations and make statements that were silly based on the science. (For example, there’s the doctors who recommend that non-monogamous women not get IUDs based on completely outdated science about IUDs).

        I still think every person themselves should make their own determination as to what they’re going to do with their body.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Yeah, but that’s a competency issue, not a science issue. When the CDC issues a travel advisory—even if it seems overreaching—most people are going to say that it’s reasonable for non-scientists/physicians to rely on that advice and/or the advice of their physician. I also think there’s also a difference between advice that suggests limiting exposure to risks vs. advice that increases your exposure to risks.

    3. Engineer Girl*

      Your analysis is incorrect (from someone that did risk analysis for a living). Risk is assessed on probability times consequences. You state that the risk is small. That isn’t true at all. The probability is small. The consequences are high, as it involves severe damage or death.
      Because the consequences are so high ,the risk analysis would result in a medium to medium high risk that MUST be mitigated.

      1. Purest Green*

        That’s interesting information. I’ve seen similar arguments about chances of x thing being so small that it’s not a big deal, and I didn’t have the language to articulate why it still seemed like a big deal anyway.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Risk analysis is not super hard in most cases, as Engineer Girl points out. Whether it “must” be mitigated is usually a legal question that varies by industry and the nature of the risk/harm. But if, like this case, it’s really not that expensive to avoid a risk, then generally you should try to do so.

        2. Not So NewReader*

          Insurance companies WANT all levels of risk addressed.

          I wonder what would happen to this company’s insurance premiums if the insurance company knew that employees had to travel to zika zones.

          At this point, we are not talking about just the health insurance company, other insurance providers might be keenly interested here.

      2. Trout 'Waver*

        Probability times consequences is still so vanishingly small as to be lost in the noise.

        What percentage of those 182 cases where pregnant women or women who became pregnant shortly afterwards and suffered negative results?

        To put it another way, you are more likely to be murdered in Miami than contract Zika. That’s a pretty severe consequence (especially for pregnant women) with a higher probability. But nobody’s saying don’t go to Miami because of the murder rate.

        1. Natalie*

          By and large I agree with you on the risk assessment of zika, but it’s sort of besides the point here. The decision to not go has already been made and the trip is over, so telling them they should have gone is just unhelpful Monday-morning quarterbacking. The women who made that decision didn’t even write in, it’s their manager, and morale problems aren’t really solved by saying “well, you over-reacted so STFU”.

          For that matter, IMO the company would be in the wrong here no matter why someone backed out, based on the timeline above.

        2. animaniactoo*

          #1) Too much is still unknown about Zika to make any kind of declarative statements on what is or isn’t a reasonable risk. All we have is “what we know now”. The information is constantly changing and developing. Part of the stuff around the active advisories (and I would make this argument for any location with an active advisory) is that stuff is still unknown and until more is known it’s best practice to do X to avoid the potential danger that we know exists and the potential danger we may be unaware of as yet.

          #2) I live in NYC. Grew up here. It’s a large tourist capital and I know for fact that people say “don’t go to NY because of the murder/crime rate”. Less so these days, but yes, it does still get said.

          #3) Generally crime rates are higher in some neighborhoods so even people who ARE concerned but come anyway take precautions to avoid neighborhoods/specific situations. You can use bug spray, but you can’t really avoid mosquitos no matter where you go once you’re in the location.

          #4) To your point above about Miami might be safer than where I (generally) live? No, not necessarily. Even if the place I live has a higher crime rate, the difference is that I *know* where I live, I know where to go and where I don’t want to go and what is more likely to endanger me here. I don’t know that in a city that I’m unfamiliar with. So the possibility exists that I can actually be *safer* here due to my familiarity and comfort level in a place that has more “average” danger than a location that has less.

          #5) There’s a difference between necessary to do your job, and non-essential work function. I would absolutely take different risks for something that was necessary to my job than for a non-essential work function. In a heartbeat. Both are measurements of how they affect my livelihood. My risk assessment takes that into account – and that’s my choice to make.

        3. Engineer Girl*

          No, but you mitigate the risk by staying in good neighborhoods and not wandering around at 3 AM. So you do mitigate the risk.
          Avoiding mosquitoes is pretty hard in Florida so becomes harder to mitigate.

        4. Jessie*

          So, I come at this with a bias because I’ve got a child with a condition in some ways similar to microcephaly and I am fully aware I can’t be aloof about this. But still, it just boggles my mind that anyone would question someone’s decision to avoid a zika transmission area (that’s what the CDC is calling parts of the Miami area) when the risk, however “vanishingly small” you think it might be, would have profoundly life-altering consequences. It’s a small risk in terms of straight probability but so-enormous-you-probably-can’t-begin-to-fathom-it significance.

          And for an *optional* work retreat? No way. Holy cow.

        5. fposte*

          I also don’t know if you’re correct about being more likely to be murdered on a weekend work retreat, though. And it is, to put it brutally, less of a financial burden to be murdered than to have a child with microcephaly.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            I was thinking the same thing. Death is cheaper than even a mild chronic illness. I am sure insurance companies are aware of this.

        6. Rusty Shackelford*

          Actually, the crime rate *would* influence whether or not I choose to go to Miami, and what I do there. And as Engineer Girl said, it’s easier to reduce my risk of being murdered than to reduce my risk of being bitten by a particular type of mosquito.

        7. Mookie*

          You’re more likely to be assaulted or murdered by someone you know. The solution: don’t know people. Or, holiday with strangers in a strange land. Is that more or less impossible to you than abiding by CDC guidelines?

        1. the_scientist*

          These aren’t really analogous concepts, though. EngineerGirl is discussing risk in a planning sense, where you are determining whether or not to take pre-emptive action to mitigate the risk. Which, I would argue is appropriate in this context because it takes into account the long-term consequences of the outcome should it occur.

          Epidemiological risk is about probability- that is, risk in A group vs. B group (where A and B differ in exposure or other factors). In this scenario, the risk would be for Zika in those travelling to Miami vs. those not travelling. Even if the ratio is not statistically significant, that says nothing about individual-level risk (only group risk, because remember, epidemiology looks at groups/populations and not individuals) or about the long-term consequences associated with the outcome. I understand that you seem to have a vested interest in downplaying concerns about Zika, but it’s not accurate to use Risk Ratio as a sole determinant of reasonableness in this context.

      3. Honeybee*

        Also, if that were the case – the consequences for any disease can be severe damage or death. The consequences for vaccines can be severe damage or death, even though the chances of that happening are very, very, very low. If that was really how risk analysis operated in public health, then we wouldn’t give vaccines and we’d tell people not to go outside. Thankfully, it’s not.

        1. Jessie*

          The vaccine analogy is incredibly poorly suited to this scenario. Vaccines have a risk-benefit analysis involving the disease itself. Risk to a person of a rare side effect of a vaccine is weighed against the risk of actually catching the disease itself and the serious consequences that flow from that. You can’t seriously be comparing that to the risk/”benefit” of traveling to a zika transmission area for a completely optional work retreat for a person who is trying to conceive.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Yeah, I think you’re conflating the risk analysis folks conduct in policymaking (as the_scientist noted) with public health risk analyses.

            And also, as noted, the cost of a negative reaction to a vaccine has to be measured against the benefit of the vaccine not only to the individual being vaccinated, but to society as a whole. You also have to compare it to the cost of non-vaccination, which as we see in the Bay Area and San Diego, has resulted in the resurgence of vaccinated people dying from measles and mumps. These are not comparable cases.

          2. Hrovitnir*

            Yes. Taking into consideration only probability in the Zika scenario is missing the severity of consequences angle. The third part of the equation is the consequences of not going – in the case of this non-mandatory conference, it’s effectively zero. In the case of vaccination the cost is enormous.

            Some people cannot have certain vaccinations, and that is exactly why everyone who can needs to.

      4. anonposterfl*

        Thank you, Engineer Girl, for putting into words what I have been grappling with for months. I gave more details below, but basically my husband and I left South Florida when the Zika outbreak happened because I’m pregnant and we were so scared/stressed over it. Your comment describes EXACTLY my reasoning for why leaving made sense for us, although it’s been very hard to articulate. I really appreciate having this frame of reference to fall back on for the times when I question our decision.

      5. Hrovitnir*

        This is well written. I know all those words, yet when I found myself balking at the statement that the “risk is low” I couldn’t think of a succinct way to disagree.

  33. Betty*

    There is still a lot of unknowns with the Zika virus. I wouldn’t go to a Zika outbreak area no matter my situation, pregnant or not. It is not worth any risk to my health or future offspring’s health.

  34. fposte*

    Are there any Floridians and especially Miamians here who want to weigh in? What are people doing when presence in a Zika outbreak region is a normal part of the job? I realize that that doesn’t have to be the way everybody else treats it, but I’m curious.

    1. Anonforthis*

      I’m in Florida and travel extensively for work and actually was one of the people contracted Zika. As a non-pregnant, not ever planning on children woman, it was no big deal. I felt like I had the flu for a few days, my lab results were logged by the CDC, and I felt back to normal four or five days later.

      Of course, experts don’t know all of the long-term effects of Zika yet, but based on my experience, a lot of it is unfounded, media-hyped panic.

      1. AvonLady Barksdale*

        I think it’s safe to say, however, that the fear about Zika isn’t about contracting the virus oneself, it’s about the risk of passing it on to a fetus. Everything I’ve read and heard says that yes, Zika contracted by a healthy adult is pretty mild (as you experienced), and there is no danger to healthy adults who are not planning to conceive. That’s why I’d argue with your characterization of this issue as “unfounded”. There is so little we don’t know yet, and for some people– not all– that means the risks are pretty high.

        1. One Handed Typist*

          When the swine flu (H1N1) was a huge hype 7-8 years ago, I happened to contract it while pregnant. That is one of the highest risk groups for H1N1. It sucked! I contracted it at 11 weeks, was out of work for just over a week, then came back to the office and got to explain why my doctors were overreacting (I hadn’t yet shared my pregnancy). But I had a deep cough until about 30 weeks and major fatigue throughout the entire pregnancy – more so than a typical pregnancy. I was lucky: it was never severe enough for me to be hospitalized. But my OB did mention she had another patient who was hospitalized for two weeks because of it.

          Zika seems to be similar, though obviously the affect on babies is much more severe. Yes, it is a true danger to those in the high risk groups, but the high risk groups are quite specific.

      2. Jessie*

        There was some unfounded, media-hyped panic. But I cannot overstate the crisis that having a child born with microcephaly is, and I cannot fault *anyone* who is trying to conceive, or who is actually pregnant, for being terrified of that possibility and doing everything possible to stay away from an area with reported infections. It is not a condition to take lightly.

        1. Kate*

          Yes. And there is more and more evidence that there are significant long term developmental effects even for Zika-infected babies born without microcephaly – abnormal brain development after birth. I’m an epidemiologist and don’t panic easily, but if I had been pregnant and living in Miami, I would have looked for a way to move away, at least till I delivered.

          1. the_scientist*

            There are so many of us here! :)

            I agree- if I lived in an Zika hotspot and had been pregnant/TTC I absolutely would have found a way out if possible. Zika is still too new for us to have a thorough understanding of all of the consequences.

    2. Epsilon Delta*

      I was wondering about that too. Obviously the advice to people looking to have kids is to avoid going to Zika areas like Florida, and for good reason. But what if you live in one of those areas? I doubt local doctors are telling Floridians to stop having kids, period full stop.

      1. the_scientist*

        They probably aren’t because Zika isn’t endemic there, but that is essentially what governments are doing in South American countries where Zika is endemic- they are (or were at one point, admittedly I’ve stopped following the Zika news as closely in recent months) issuing a blanket advisory that women in Zika zones (Brazil in particular) postpone childbearing for up to two years.

        1. Epsilon Delta*

          Yikes (at the situation). That does not seem sustainable, but I guess there aren’t a lot of good options right now.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I mean, those countries have considered allowing forms of contraception that have been banned because of the possibility of even a small % of women with Zika having children with microencephaly.

          1. the_scientist*

            Yeah, this recommendation is basically unprecedented in modern medical history, as near as I can tell. Most of the countries with Zika are very, very Catholic, so issuing advice that women do anything at all to prevent pregnancy is a huge deal. I would argue that they should also be passing out condoms in rural and impoverished areas, but again- very Catholic.

      2. anonposterfl*

        My husband and I were relocated to South Florida last year. Got pregnant in April, and packed our bags and moved back up north in September purely because of the stress of Zika. Whether overhyped or not, trying to stay fully covered up, covered in DEET and avoiding mosquitos at all costs (aka never going outside unnecessarily) was negatively affecting our lifestyle and adding so much stress that we felt it best to leave. Before you say we overreacted, we discussed this at length with multiple medical providers in the area, all of who said “if you have the means to go, you should go.” In this case, the risk was 100% not worth it to us. We are also not the only people we know who left the area to avoid Zika whilst pregnant. The scariest part about Zika, to me, is the fact that only 1 and 5 people show symptoms. So while the numbers of people who have contracted it may seem low, it’s an artificially low number. They really have idea how many people have been infected.

  35. Jeanne*

    I think as the manager you don’t have to jump in with the pregnancy stuff. Obviously someone in HR is pissed off about it. Talk to them about the policy. If an employee got pneumonia or had a house fire or their mom had a heart attack, would you force them to reimburse the expenses? Good employees don’t want to work for a company that would do that. You will lose more than the cost of three plane tickets if you have to replace even three good employees. What if it’s ten good employees? If HR agrees, you’re good. If they say of course they wouldn’t make house fire guy pay back the plane ticket, then you can bring up the possibility of discrimination.

    I think if they say talk to the CEO, you should say I’ll do that. Then go and talk to him. I think it’s wonderful you are sticking up for your employees.

  36. Merida May*

    As others have mentioned, it’s odd for a company that (presumably) has the resources to pull together a full on destination retreat to turn around and get aggressive when it comes to recouping the cost of unused tickets. If they were stretched this thinly to begin with maybe these retreats need to occur a little closer to home, or not at all. At the very least this should be a conversation about examining the unwritten, and previously unheard of until this situation happened, policy of cancellations. Maybe this is where the OP should look to push back on. This is not the example I would want a reactionary HR policy based around.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Agreed. If it were this much of a problem, you would think they might have established policy around it before now, or at least made it clear to the employees what that policy was, which it does not sound like they did.

  37. Anonymoosetracks*

    This makes me sad in part because my husband’s company did have a retreat (families invited) scheduled for a Zika area. We were not going anyway for pregnancy reasons (i.e. that I will be too pregnant to fly), but they specifically told employees a few weeks ago that if people wanted to back out because of Zika they could do so without penalty. The company DOES specifically require employees to agree to reimburse them for flights/hotels if they back out for non-emergency reasons, and this is made very clear when signing up for the retreat, so this was thoughtful of them to do. But it’s a family retreat- company pays for spouses’ and kids’ airfare and hotel rooms as well as employees, so it’s kind of a necessary thing- they want to make sure people aren’t signing up for like airfare for 6 people and then backing out on a whim.

  38. Eric*

    Have the employees tell accounting that they only pay invoices where there is a properly issued Purchase Order on file.

  39. animaniactoo*

    I see I misunderstood the timetable of how everything happened, however I would continue to bet large that all the decisions around this have been made by somebody (or several somebodies) who basically believe that Zika is (as someone put it above) “unfounded media hype” and don’t believe that the women had a valid concern.

    OP said you can not go if you have a legitimate reason – the handling of this basically says they don’t consider Zika to be a legitimate reason. Not for not going in the first place (or they’d have given up the deposit money) and not for backing out in the light of changed circumstances.

    I still say have them and their spouses all sign notarized affidavits that they’ve been bonking like rabbits trying to get pregnant, reductio ad absurdum and all that.

    OP, I’ve seen several people ask, but haven’t seen an answer from you on this – were the women on your team the only ones who bowed out?

  40. ANON*

    Zika is also being linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome in places like Puerto Rico, so any man or woman may have reason to not want to travel to Zika areas. The possibility of increasing your chances of getting an autoimmune disorder is not worth going to a conference. I would argue for conference via web call.

  41. One Handed Typist*

    How is this not a medical discrimination case? Are women and men required to disclose their family planning to their employers? “Hey boss, my husband and I have plans to make a baby tonight. What are you doing?”

    Honestly, as someone who has had multiple pregnancy losses in the first 10 weeks, I have made the choice to not disclose a pregnancy until the first trimester is passed. Why should I have to disclose my medical status to my employer before then?

    It applies to men too – maybe they don’t want to disclose that they are trying to have a baby. If it is a gay couple, they really may not want to disclose which partner donated sperm. And you may not know if you are donating within 8 weeks, just at some point in the next couple of months. Surrogates can fall into place quickly and the process can move along within a 6 week frame sometimes.

    This just seems like a huge can of worms. Some authority figure has chosen this as a hill to die on, and they are really going to.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s not a law against “medical discrimination.” You might be thinking of disability law, but pregnancy in and of itself isn’t considered a covered disability under the ADA.

  42. Helena*

    Question for a lawyer: would requiring the employees to pay for the flight violate the Fair Labor Standards Act rules for exempt employees? The Department of Labor has a ruling ( that says “The WHD takes the position in its enforcement of the FLSA that deductions from the salaries of otherwise exempt employees for the loss, damage, or destruction of the employer’s funds or property due to the employees’ failure to properly carry out their managerial duties (including where signed “agreements” were used) would defeat the exemption because the salaries would not be “guaranteed” or paid “free and clear” as required by the regulations. Such impermissible deductions violate the regulation’s prohibition against reductions in compensation due to the quality of the work performed by the employee. “

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      As Donna notes in Alison’s response to the OP, it could possibly violate the FLSA.

      1. Helena*

        Donna only noted the case where it might take them below minimum wage. The linked ruling suggests the below-minimum-wage rule only applies to non-exempt, not to exempt. My reading is that the wages of exempt employees can’t have their wages deducted at all for “performance reasons” (i.e., they didn’t un-RSVP in time), but I am not a lawyer.

          1. Helena*

            The ruling is specifically about “requir[ing] them to reimburse the company for damage to or loss of company equipment” as well as docking pay. DOL seems to consider those two things the same.

            1. Helena*

              “It would not matter whether an employer implements such a policy by making periodic deductions from employee salaries, or by requiring employees to make out-of-pocket reimbursements from compensation already received.”

    2. Bellatrix*

      This has been addressed above. The debt towards the company may very well be unenforceable (for the reasons you mentioned and some more on top) – whether the company can fire people for not going & not paying is another issue.

      1. Helena*

        But wouldn’t firing someone for refusing to do an illegal thing open up huge additional liability for the company? If Walmart says “work unpaid overtime or you’re fired”, I can’t imagine that Walmart would win the ensuing lawsuit when the employee refuses to work unpaid overtime.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          This wouldn’t be firing someone for refusing to do an illegal thing. Working unpaid overtime is illegal. Paying the company back is legal (although not required by law).

          1. Helena*

            That’s the thing, I believe the linked ruling means it’s illegal for the company to require them to pay them back. But I could be wrong.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            Honestly this isn’t my area of expertise, so I’m just spitballing, but I didn’t think failure to un-RSVP is considered a “performance reason,” which is why it seems like it wouldn’t necessarily be illegal (under federal law) to pursue this crap policy or to fire someone for failing to comply with the crap policy. But again, I want to disclaim that this is my gut reaction, not a “well the law says” reaction.

            The Walmart example isn’t great because if you’re working overtime, you’re non-exempt and thus covered by the ruling Donna linked. So I feel like maybe I’m missing part of your rationale, which is why I’m having a hard time getting to the same conclusion that you are…

  43. Monday*

    Attorney Ballman did say one thing that is not correct by our current understanding:
    “If there are pregnant employees in the company, then company travel to a red zone is a serious risk for that employee since other employees could come back with the Zika virus and transmit to them.”
    Unless the company is located in an area with Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the only way employees would transmit Zika virus to other employees is by having sex with them. It is otherwise not contagious directly from person to person.

  44. Kate*

    I work in public health for a very large university where faculty and students do lots of travel around the world. When the link to microcephaly first came out, our org issued guidelines recommending that women (employees and students) who are pregnant or trying to conceive not travel to Zika-affected areas (and that men whose partners are trying to conceive abstain or use condoms after returning). Yes, it’s a bit of a burden, but it is possible to work around it.
    There is literally no way for the employer to prove that the affected women were not pregnant during the retreat – it takes a few weeks to test positive for pregnancy, and many pregnancies are lost before the positive test. And contrary to popular belief you can become pregnant at any point in your cycle (it’s more rare for it to happen early or late in the cycle, but it happens). That’s why the CDC recommendation includes women trying to conceive. IANAL, but I would think for this reason that you could claim pregnancy discrimination.

Comments are closed.