Protecting Your Restaurant During the Pandemic When Employees Return from Vacation

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, restaurant workers of all types need time off to rest, recharge, and hopefully return reinvigorated to serve your customers. How can management help those who head out on vacation to return healthy and keep them from possibly infecting other staff and guests?

No matter where the returning employee works, as an employer, you must protect all of your employees, guests, and vendors. It’s critical to take necessary precautions to help ensure all are protected when employees return to work.

These seven tips can help ensure employees and guests are protected when employees return from vacation:

Follow Official Guidance

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization has continued to evolve as their understanding of COVID-19 has progressed.  It’s important to use “official” guidance as your own. This also includes local and state recommendations or mandates.

Update Your Handbook

It's likely that your internal employee handbook does not address paid time off during a pandemic.  If that’s the case, it may be time to update your policies.  Review current policies to see what has been written generally regarding vacation or paid time off.  Ensure that you have included policies that comply with recent legislation and guidance under federal, state, or local requirements regarding time away from work. 

If you amend your employee handbook or policies, be sure to inform employees, distribute the revised document(s), and have employees acknowledge the changes by requesting a signature receipt.  Be sure that you are familiar with the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act (FFCRA), and if your establishment is a covered employer, under certain circumstances, you may be required to provide paid leave and comply with the FFCRA notice requirement.

Pre-Travel Inquiries May Be Allowed

If applied uniformly to all employees, policies may be able to include notification of past or future travel plans to allow you as the employer to reasonably evaluate the risk to other employees or customers.  In addition, you can educate employees about the risks associated with travel plans.  This can include employer policies when an employee returns to the workplace, and also address, if applicable under state law, whether employees have traveled to specified locations, and notice of when or if screenings might be required before return to work, as well as a reminder to alert management and stay home if they feel ill upon their return. An employer may ask where the employee has traveled, even if the travel was personal, as this is not considered a disability-related inquiry.

Employers are encouraged to review applicable federal, state and local leave law provisions. Employers generally have leeway to approve or deny requests for time off. They may also be able to deny additional time off to quarantine, although employees may be eligible for this time under law. However, trying to restrict where employees travel while on vacation could run afoul of state laws governing employees’ lawful conduct when off-duty. Again, depending on local or state mandates, you may require the employees wear a mask or face covering and to practice safe distancing.

Designate an Official HR 'Point of Contact' 

Overseeing HR should never fall to “just any” employee. In times like these, to help ensure policies are implemented uniformly and the company limits risk and legal exposure, it’s critical that personnel issues be managed by a skilled professional. 

Keep Disclosures Confidential and Apply All Policies Consistently

Employers must keep employee medical information confidential, including any COVID-19 testing results.  In addition, once disclosed to HR, an employer should also consider keeping an employee’s plans confidential. Disclosure of an employee’s travel plans, even if to a known hotspot, can lead to discrimination or harassment concerns or possible HIPAA violations, if the travel is related to health issues. Additionally, other employees may refuse to work if they know a coworker traveled to a reported hotspot.

Consider Who Else is at Risk of Exposure to COVID-19

Beyond protecting your guests or patrons, as well as other staff, scan your daily interactions to see who might else be at risk – or pose risks to your establishment. This can include vendors delivering food and beverage supplies. Take reasonable steps to set procedures for vendors to help mitigate exposure to employees and guests.

Above All, Be Consistent, Neutral and Uniform When Applying Policies

If management asks a server to disclose their travel plans, the same should be asked of any other employee – all the way up to a restaurant location manager and the CEO. Again, inconsistency can lead to legal exposure, including claims of discrimination or harassment. Moreover, any perception of favoritism can harm employee morale.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that no one lives in isolation and aside from the potential exposure to COVID-19, the moral, ethical, and legal implications have never been more evident. COVID-19 continues to affect restaurateurs and employees still struggling to emerge amid the re-opening and lingering economic fallout.  In an effort to comply with the many new laws, regulations and guidance evolving to protect workers during COVID-19, working with an HR professional and legal counsel can help meet the needs of your restaurant, your employees, and the community you serve.