update: can my job make me travel during the pandemic?

Remember the letter-writer concerned that her company would make her travel during the pandemic? Here’s the update.

I ended up having to respond to my company before Alison posted my question. I did end up including a little lie, thinking there would be less push back: I said that due to family circumstances I didn’t feel comfortable traveling until I was vaccinated. In a sense, it’s true! Me and my SO (my immediate family) believe in reducing the spread of COVID, including non-essential travel, not just to protect ourselves but others as well. The response I got back was essentially “we get it and you should do what you feel is safe.” I don’t feel great about lying as it’s sort of an easy way out and I should just be able say “no – this puts me and others at risk”.

So, it ended up working out for me. However I don’t appreciate that my company put the onus on me to put up this boundary against my superiors, and that they essentially have no protocol for pandemic travel. I definitely feel like declining this “opportunity” has reduced my standing in the company, but to me it’s worth it. Four other people will be making this trip, two at a time (there are three weeks required to be on the job site, and the supervisor plus one rotating person will go out there). I was the only one who declined to go. I think there’s immense pressure to go along with what higher-ups want. I do feel bad that someone else from my work will likely just go in my place and my personal push-back did not solve the basic issue of traveling during the pandemic, though I am relieved I won’t be going.

A little more context:

– A lot of people questioned if the travel is necessary. It is required contractually for the project, and must be conducted in person, this type of inspection definitely can’t be done remotely – but I don’t think it’s essential for me and my role on this project. It would be me and my supervisor who wants someone there to follow them around and take notes. Given that much of the country has had to make adjustments in workflow for the pandemic, and my work otherwise has been pretty much WFH since March, it’s surprising to me that zero accommodations have been made in this case… “the show must go on”. It would be largely interior, with multiple trades/meetings and inspections. I have seen nothing to suggest that they’re making any efforts to make the site safe, beyond the obligatory “wear a mask when the boss is watching” which is hardly followed anyway.

– I am expected to drive locally for work to job sites within 1-2 hours, however I haven’t had to much during COVID purely out of coincidence and the phase my projects are in. Traveling locally, I am still able to drive in my own car, maintain distance, wear masks, come home to my own bed at night, and avoid high-risk locations. This project is one of the only out-of-state projects in my office.

– In general, my work has had a fairly decent response in general to the pandemic, though I notice that lately that people are much more relaxed about it, taking their mask off, not distancing, etc. A few people in the office got COVID, but since they were fairly mild cases I think it’s contributed to the assumption that COVID isn’t that big of a deal. They’re also big on “in person collaboration” as if it’s the holy grail of productivity.

{ 61 comments… read them below }

  1. Allypopx*

    It doesn’t sound like your company will change unless you push back as a group and there’s no one willing to do the work, so short of that (which I’d advocate if it’s reasonable but there are many reasons it might not be) it sounds like you made the best choices for yourself. That’s all you can do. I’m sorry you were put in this situation.

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      It also does not seem like the company can change, if traveling to inspect construction sites are part of the contract the company has. Sure someone could walk around with a camera “showing” you the site but that is not the same as being there. I don’t think the company really did anything wrong, they asked OP to go to the site, OP said no, the company said okay and found someone else.

      1. KnittyVal*

        I agree. I understand being uncomfortable to be asked, but the company didn’t behave badly.

      2. Lynn*

        I agree to an extent but I think if they need to be conducting this business in person, they need to do so with as few people as possible (e.g. no one asked to tag along just to take notes) and need to be more serious about enforcing masking and distancing as much as possible

        1. Quill*

          Yeah, if you can’t change the work, you can’t change the work, but you HAVE TO make sure that people have and use their PPE.

          1. CmdrShepard4ever*

            I think there is only so much OP’s company can control, they can’t force the employees of the other company/site follow proper protocols. It does seem like the company is trying to do something

            “I have seen nothing to suggest that they’re making any efforts to make the site safe, beyond the obligatory “wear a mask when the boss is watching” which is hardly followed anyway.”

            I have seen it at different companies have certain policies, but it is always hard to enforce 100%.

        2. MCMonkeybean*

          Yes, this is definitely not the time to bring someone along just to shadow you. Just like how my husband and I no longer do grocery shopping together–If having one person there would be sufficient then they need to just have one person there.

          1. Not Me*

            And the company has decided one person is not sufficient.

            I know the rules of the site are to believe the LW, it’s also very reasonable that LW doesn’t have all the relevant information. Their employer believes two are required to do the work, how on Earth can any of us know better?

            1. allathian*

              The OP said they’d be there to essentially follow the supervisor around and take notes. Seems to me that the supervisor could take notes, even if the inspection might take longer that way.

        3. Quinalla*

          Yes, you need to minimize people on site. My job involves site visits to construction sites that are contractually mandated, so I definitely get it, but one person should be going and everyone should be wearing masks and distancing. And as I said in the last thread, my company also is not requiring anyone to travel as we make sure we have enough employees willing to do so. That has been made even more adamant during COVID.

          1. allathian*

            My husband works for an energy utility and he has to be present to answer any questions inspectors might ask at a site. He’s pretty much eliminated all other business travel, but those trips are mandated by law and at this point the legislation doesn’t allow remote inspections. But they follow strict COVID guidelines.

      3. Cat Tree*

        I work in a highly regulated industry and we have had several remote audits and inspections. It works surprisingly well once you get it sorted out. It’s not ideal but also not impossible. And this is manufacturing so it’s not just a matter of reviewing documents.

      4. J!*

        It seems like that’s something you’d know about a position when you accept the job, though. The letter writer says they’ve never had to travel for work before. If it was an essential part of their duties, then being asked to find a way to travel again would be a discussion that had to happen. It seems like the letter writer had never had to travel previously, which seems incredibly odd to ask someone who did not have those duties in their job description to start traveling in the middle of a pandemic!

      5. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        The least they could do would be ensure that everything is done to ensure the safety of all staff… it’s kind of the lowest expectation you can ever have of a company, surely?

  2. Audrey Puffins*

    That’s not a lie, that’s just a carefully curated truth. Glad they didn’t push back and force you to go anyway!

      1. Ally McBeal*

        “Alternate facts” are lies. This isn’t a lie – OP and her family decided the risk was too great; there’s no mandate that she had to have an immunocompromised relative or whatever in order for her reasoning to “count.”

    1. Threeve*

      Everyone’s family circumstances should make them reluctant to travel, whether it’s “I have a family” or “other people have families.”

    2. Rose*

      Thank you, this really bothers me. My cousin died this year. He was 32 and healthy. “I have a family and I don’t want to risk my life or theirs” is enough. Your neighbors having families is enough. The cashmere at the grocery store where you shop wanting to live is enough. The US is full of people who shrugged and said “well my family is fun!” And now we have 500,000 people dead. Feeling guilty because you lied to follow public health guidelines to save lives is so sad. How did we get here?

        1. allathian*

          I’m so sorry for your loss.

          But yeah, it seems to me that larger numbers young and previously healthy people are ending up in hospital or dying because of the more recent mutant strains. I was shocked, but sadly not surprised, to learn that Texas is rolling back all Covid restrictions. It made the prime time news broadcast here.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            UK here. Saw that news and….yeah. I hope all you fine people in the US come out of this okay and safe, I really do.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I’m so sorry for your loss. I’ve also lost people to this virus who were not in any high risk group and it angers me that so many believe that if you’re young and healthy there’s no risk.

        I obey all health rules not only because I’m high risk, but because I know literally every person I see could potentially die of this and I don’t want to harm others.

        But even in the UK (and we’re catching up to the us in terms of deaths per capita) there are those who are pushing the ‘we need to go back to work in person because productivity, or mental health, or people’s feelings, or that this is just a cold’. So if anyone feels the need to even stretch the truth a little to combat that….go for it. My virology credentials can back you up if you like.

  3. Momma Bear*

    It’s not a lie, though. “Alternative facts” are lies. This was just not elaborating further. Company said they get it, and that LW had a choice, and so LW chose.

    I’d be annoyed at coworkers who are lax, though. If LW writes back, I’d also be curious to know if this out of state work is also supported by testing and quarantine upon their return.

    1. Vee*

      If LW’s company is like mine, there are no quarantine or testing requirements for employees who must travel out of state (mostly driving distance, but still). My company isn’t even doing a good job enforcing the covid policies they have in place either which is frustrating since I’m required to be on site. I’ve also had to travel a few times (was necessary for projects). Not all companies are taking this seriously unfortunately.

  4. Seeking Second Childhood*

    For what it’s worth, many state vaccination schedules prioritize not only “line workers” for certain industries but also *the inspectors whose roles require them to go out to the line for periods of time*.
    Check your state, the state where your employer is based, and possibly even the state where your CUSTOMER is based. It may be possible for your company to file to have its inspectors added to the schedule sooner than your age group’s priority.
    I do not consider this gaming the system because inspections are critical to safe operation — if the industry is essential, so are the inspectors.

    1. CoveredInBees*

      Yup. I track food safety for work and a lot of meat and poultry inspectors have gotten sick because line workers have been pressured into working while sick and in infection-friendly settings. Managers at a Tyson plant placed *bets* on how many line workers would get COVID and 1,000 of the 2,800 workers in that plant tested positive for COVID within months of the pandemic starting in the US. Six of them died.

  5. Sparkles McFadden*

    A lie would be “Everyone in my family is in a high risk group.” Saying “Family circumstances” is the truth. You are doing what you need to in order to protect your spouse. That’s family circumstances for sure.

    I get that you feel bad because you stated it that way because you knew the inferences management would make from a vague statement. We all have to do that at one time or another. That’s actually what management does by putting the onus on you, hoping you won’t push back.

  6. Dr. Rebecca*

    “…wants someone there to follow them around and take notes”

    I commend you for not handing your supervisor a dictaphone and walking off.

    1. Louise*

      Or if the boss really can’t take his own notes have the boss wear a go camera while LW sat at home taking notes. Boss doesn’t have to take his own notes, work gets done, company saves money on travel, and LW stays safe. I could also see a boss that won’t take their own notes during a pandemic forgetting to turn off said camera in the bathroom.

      1. Dr. Rebecca*

        I’m not giving anyone my cellphone, I don’t care where they are in my chain of command. Oh, you meant he could have done it himself; yeah, unlikely.

        1. Bob*

          If he wants someone around to take notes he can record the meeting with his own cell phone, send the recording to the person who can listen and make those notes.

    2. The Rural Juror*

      I can understand why it’s a two-person job. I work for a construction company and in normal times I will go out to a site just to help my coworker (the site supervisor) with inspecting things. Sometimes he’s up on a ladder, other times he’s measuring things and call out dimensions, and other times he’s got his head stuck up under a cabinet. Following him around and taking notes helps him work faster, but also is more accurate because he’s not relying on measuring the thing, then stopping to write it down, but forgetting part of the number. Also, if he’s having to get up on a ladder to check structural members or anything like that, it’s safer for me to assist.

      During the pandemic, I have met him on site some of the time, but it was at frame stage (partially open air), we wore masks the whole time and were socially distant. I haven’t been back out since they enclosed the building.

      My situation is different from the OP’s, though, and I don’t blame them for being extremely hesitant!

  7. a clockwork lemon*

    It seems kind of unreasonable to be annoyed that the company is putting the onus on individuals to determine their own comfort level with regards to traveling to offsite construction inspections, especially if those inspections are generally part of your normal job duties and must be performed in person. They asked, you said you were uncomfortable, and they didn’t force you to travel. This is the exact outcome you wanted.

    People have different risk tolerances, and someone has to go. The fact that all four other people on your team are making this trip as part of a three week rotation makes it seem like it’s fairly standard for inspections to be performed in teams, although I could be wrong. You don’t specify whether your coworkers are as intensely cautious as you are, or if they’re upset about having to go–just that you’re disappointed your company is still fulfilling its contractual obligations. That’s totally your prerogative, but I don’t see a way in which your company and coworkers could all just opt out of contractually (and probably legally) mandated construction site inspections in the absence of a country-wide lockdown and work stoppage.

    1. Anya Last Nerve*

      I agree. Nothing about the company’s ask or response seems outrageous to me.

    2. cat lady*

      but it IS reasonable to expect them to have a procedure in place that minimizes risk– it’s not essential that the OP goes, just that their boss does.

      1. Not Me*

        I think that’s a stretch to assume OP has all the relevant information to make that call. It sounds like OP’s role on the trip would be keeping notes, it’s very possible without OP (or whoever goes in their place) the tasks would take much longer or not meet the contractual obligations without that additional help.

    3. Jennifer Thneed*

      What you’re saying here is ignoring the fact that OP has not had to do these sort of overnight trips before, so it’s not been a regular part of their employment. (From the original letter: “I have never been required to travel for work before…”.)

      1. a clockwork lemon*

        I’m not ignoring it. I’m saying OP was asked to do something, declined to do the thing, and was allowed not to to participate when OP expressed discomfort. The ask itself was not unreasonable.

    4. meyer lemon*

      They certainly could enforce higher standards for distancing and PPE use. It also probably would have gone a long way if they had framed the request differently, by having a conversation and explaining what protective measures are in place and what employees will be expected to do up front, rather than just dropping the order to travel as if it were business as usual. It also doesn’t really sound like the LW’s presence would have been that essential to the work, so it’s possible they’re not really examining ways to minimize how many people need to travel.

      My guess is that this is just one of many ways in which the company seems to be doing the bare minimum of recognizing the pandemic. It gets exhausting to feel like you have to swim against the current every time you want to protect your health and adhere to public health recommendations.

    5. NotJane*

      I agree with you. A lot of the comments seem to be focused on the broader issue of work travel during the pandemic and companies providing PPE and enforcing safety/social distancing protocols, and while those are certainly topics worthy of discussion, they’re not particularly pertinent to OP’s situation. OP didn’t feel safe traveling, she brought up her concerns to her employer, and they said, “Okay, you don’t have to travel.” That sounds like a pretty ideal, if unexciting, resolution.

      OP wrote that she thinks “there’s immense pressure to go along with what higher-ups want. I do feel bad that someone else from my work will likely just go in my place…” But like you pointed out, people have different risk tolerances, and it shouldn’t be assumed that the coworkers who are traveling share OP’s level of concern. Similarly, I don’t think it should be assumed that those who are traveling are only doing so because of “immense pressure” from the bosses, if only because their response to OP sounded pretty reasonable. At least, OP doesn’t mention feeling pressured to travel after pushing back.

      But also like you said: *someone* has to go, just like a lot of people – doctors, nurses, bus drivers, law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, plumbers, delivery people, grocery store employees, flight attendants, etc. – have had to keep working and be out in public, interacting with people this whole time. OP didn’t want to be that person, and she got her wish, but now it seems like she’s upset that her “push-back did not solve the basic issue of traveling during the pandemic.” But there’s really no solution to that. Some people will have to travel for work, and they’ll run the gamut from those who do so under duress to those who are happy to volunteer.

    6. Cassidy*

      I guess you haven’t heard about the new strains of the virus that are driving up the numbers once more, or that Texas and Mississippi no longer have any requirements for safety related to COVID.

      >People have different risk tolerances, and someone has to go.

      I always wonder if those who set the terms of engagement for the rest of us include themselves.

  8. Karo*

    I don’t think what you said is a lie! It’s like telling someone you can’t go to an event because you have plans – which consist of sitting and home and relaxing. If someone puts you in a difficult position and will cause a fuss if you tell the unvarnished truth, it’s ok to put it in terms that they will understand.

  9. CubeFarmer*

    Last March, our ED put the onus on us to determine whether or not travel was necessary, which to a point I did not think was fair. I think her attitude was keep going until someone tells us not to, which is just awful leadership.

    I finally realized that I needed to grow a spine and push back–which I did. I wish I had spoken about a week sooner. Surprisingly, the response I received was very supportive. I think our ED wanted someone else to make the decision and would stand by it whatever it was. Again, awful leadership.

    1. allathian*

      Ouch! Managers must be able to make decisions, even if it feels uncomfortable sometimes. That’s what they’re paid for. I’m glad you pushed back. At least it’s something to mention as an achievement if and when you start looking for another job… This may not by itself be a reason to look for a new job if you’re otherwise happy, but rudderless organizations rarely do well in the long run.

  10. Bookworm*

    I am sorry and agree that it is wrong for the company to put the onus on you to have to push back. Yay for vaccinations rolling out but it’s still going to take awhile and there’s still so much that we don’t know about COVID. It just seems like a huge risk and it’s unfortunately that someone else will have to go anyway, rather than the company pausing for a moment to consider if there’s a better workaround.

    I’m glad it has somewhat worked out in the sense that you don’t have to go, but it does suck that maybe now you’re not seen as a team player or whatever.

  11. Message in a Bottle*

    Sorry, you were put in this position but am very glad you didn’t go. Someone may have to but it doesn’t have to be you. It may cost you a bit but getting Covid or passing it to a family member would cost you in a whole other way.

    Things are getting better Covid-wise. In a few months, it will be very different. I know it’s been a long time and the show must go on but companies and orgs could wait a few more months before going full in-person.

    1. allathian*

      It’s not getting any better. Sure, I’ve been surprised how fast the US has managed to vaccinate people in comparison with the EU where I am, but things are not getting better. Previously healthy people of working age, who think their risk of getting either long Covid or a serious illness requiring hospitalization is low, are currently dying in droves. It looks like some of the new virus strains are more likely to cause a serious illness in younger, healthy people, as well as being more infectious in general.

      I’m in Finland, and we’ve been relatively well off until now, with considerably lower numbers than either Sweden or Estonia, but our daily numbers are now higher than they have been at any point in the pandemic, although that’s at least partly due to a lower threshold for testing. The issue is complicated by the fact that many Finns commute across the border to Sweden in the north, particularly healthcare workers because the pay is better in Sweden. Many Estonians commute weekly to Southern Finland. Most of them work in construction, which has been notoriously bad at following PPE regulations and recommendations, and live in cramped conditions during the week. The borders have been intermittently closed, but the threshold for blocking commuting to work is very high.

      Sure, at some point Covid will become just another kind of viral infection like influenza, which kills between 200,000 and 600,000 people every year worldwide and largely flies under the radar. But I doubt it’ll be a matter of months.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I think we’re still going to be needing working from home, masks etc for the majority of 2021. But, saying that, I have a lot of faith in the vaccines and in the probability factors of the virus actually mutating to a far less harmful form (a parasite that kills it’s host is a bad one, this is why herpesviruses are so successful; they stay in you forever but don’t kill you).

        Least, that’s what I’m saying to stop going crazy.

  12. Archaeopteryx*

    It’s funny (sad-funny) that knowing a couple people who had mild Covid cases and recovered can mentally overrule the knowledge of two and a half million people dying of it. Of course, if you’re the kind of person who believes what they wish were true rather than what clearly is true, it doesn’t take much.

    Good for you for pushing back!

  13. Ann Furthermore*

    My company has been great about not making anyone travel, and pushing back on clients who want people onsite, telling them that we’ve got a track record of delivering projects on time with everyone working remote.

    When this all started, there was one client that was still being really pushy about having people onsite, so the project team was there once. Then the next visit was cancelled at the last minute — literally, as everyone was either enroute to the airport or already there. One of the people on the client side got Covid and was hospitalized (and I think he died, which is awful), so it was called off at the last minute. One of my coworkers put his foot down and said he wouldn’t be travelling to any more client sites until this was all over, because he’s got some underlying health conditions that put him at higher risk. That was a reality check for upper management, and they immediately changed their stance and decided that nobody would be doing any travel for the foreseeable future.

    I don’t think they were being a-holes about it before by asking people to travel. It’s a consulting firm, and the default response is to keep the client happy. Then there was that close call, and they realized they were asking too much of the employees.

  14. .......*

    my job kept making me travel during covid, up to 75%. some of the sites i went to had massive covid outbreaks, taking out a significant chunk of the workforce. ultimately i chose to find a new position. it was suggested to me that i wouldnt have to travel anymore and we could make it work, but I just didnt trust it.

  15. Esmeralda*

    I don’t think YOU should feel bad that someone else has to go in your place.
    * Your co-workers can also push back or decline just as you did.
    * Your boss / TPTB are the ones who should be feeling bad — they are the ones inappropriately insisting on the travel, and they are the ones who are not setting a good model for safer behavior.

  16. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

    Ugh- I hate the in-person collaboration/meetings as holy grail thing. I think some people have in-person meetings just to have in-person meetings. Sure, I understand that sometimes it’s beneficial, but some people who I have worked with are so over the top about it. I’ve been more productive and have built more relationships in the past year than ever- and it has all been over Zoom.

  17. Firecat*

    The idea that the inspection can’t be performed remotely or that “contractual” obligations weren’t amended is a cop out.

    I work in a highly regulated industry, onsite inspections, random unannounced State and Federal inspections and their approach is to handle everything digitally and come on site only if documentation or numbers suggest it’s neccassary.

  18. Fed-o*

    As someone who cannot work from home but works for an organization that’s mostly worked from home for the entirety of the pandemic, I second reassessing the in-office dress code for non-customer/non-partner facing positions. I also recommend finding away to let your in-office staff have a periodic telework day. Perhaps it’s once a month to catch up on more administrative tasks or telework when they work on distance training. Some people love telework, some people hate it, but almost all staff would benefit from it being a periodic option.

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