Amazon halts all employee travel, Nike closes Oregon campus

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In an unexpected move, both Amazon and Google announced new restrictions Friday on employee travel due to concerns over coronavirus and COVID-19, the illness the virus causes.

Amazon has asked all of its 798,000 employees to stop all nonessential travel, both domestic and internationally, immediately, according to an Amazon spokesperon. This is after Amazon already restricted employee travel to China in February.

The cancellations are due to fear of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The CDC has now 70 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US, including 47 cases among repatriated individuals.

So far, there have been nearly 3,000 deaths from coronavirus around the world, and there are more than 83,861 cases globally. Hospitals in the US and the UK are preparing for a coronavirus outbreak. China has been the hardest hit, but new cases are slowing there and factories are starting to reopen. However, coronavirus is now spreading around the world and other nations are hunkering down as they prepare for an onslaught of cases.

Travel ban for Amazon employees on worldwide team

The New York Times reported on Friday that Amazon employees on its worldwide operations team, which oversees technology and logistics, were told not to plan any meetings requiring travel until at least April, when the company hoped to have a better sense of the outbreak’s impact.

Google expanding employee travel restrictions

Google has expanded its employee travel restrictions, now adding South Korea and Japan to the list of areas that already included China, Iran and two Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto. This occurred after a Google employee tested positive for coronavirus, according to the company.

“We can confirm that one employee from our Zurich office has been diagnosed with the coronavirus,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “They were in the Zurich office for a limited time, before they had any symptoms. We have taken —- and will continue to take — all necessary precautionary measures, following the advice of public health officials, as we prioritize everyone’s health and safety.”

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Google also announced that it is canceling its Google News Initiative Summit because of concerns over coronavirus. The conference had been scheduled for late April in Sunnyvale, Calif.

“We regret that we have to cancel our global Google News Initiative summit but the health and well-being of our guests is our No. 1 priority,” Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google, said in a statement.

Google has not yet announced any plans to cancel its own annual developer conference, Google I/O, scheduled for May 12-14 in Mountain View, Calif.

Nike closes Oregon campus for deep cleaning

In Beaverton, Ore., Nike closed the sprawling campus where its headquarters are located after news broke that a case of coronavirus was from a Washington County, Ore. resident. The campus is undergoing deep cleaning over the weekend so that the facilities can be sanitized, according to a report from KOIN-6 TV.

Nike officials said in a statement, “We aware of the presumptive case of coronavirus (COVID-19) in Lake Oswego. While we have no information indicating any exposure to Nike employees, out of an abundance of caution, we are conducting a deep cleaning of campus. All WHQ buildings and facilities, including fitness centers, will be closed over the weekend.” WHQ refers to Nike World Headquarters.

Tech conferences around the world impacted

Meanwhile, tech conferences around the globe have been either cancelled, postponed, or have had significant exhibitors pull out for fear of coronavirus.

“The coronavirus has caused record-breaking event cancellations and postponements worldwide. Compared to last February, there is a 500% increase (and growing) in the cancellation or postponement of significant events. This past month (February 2020), we have seen more than 220 significant and major events between 5,000 to hundreds of thousands of attendees be cancelled or postponed. To give context, there were just 45 significant and major events canceled or postponed in February 2019. And, this is just the tip of the iceberg – we can all expect to see more global events cancelled in the coming months related to the coronavirus concerns,” said Campbell Brown, CEO and co-founder, PredictHQ.

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Some of the major conferences cancelled in the past few weeks include F8, Mobile World Congress, which PredictHQ’s data puts the event’s direct economic value at $5 million, Cisco Live Melbourne, Facebook’s annual marketing conference, DEF CON China and the Tokyo Marathon.

How to handle changing travel plans amid an outbreak

The quick-changing travel plans amid an outbreak like COVID-19 can make it difficult for companies to juggle employee travel plans and schedules.

In early February, before tech conferences began being canceled, and before companies started pulling out of events, companies were already limiting employee travel to China. At that time, Martin Ferguson, vice president of public affairs at American Express Global Business Travel, told TechRepublic’s Veronica Combs that he was seeing an increase in clients stopping all nonessential business travel to, from and within Wuhan and mainland China as well as areas surrounding mainland China. Some companies were also asking employees to work from home for two weeks after traveling to China as a precaution.

With uncertainty affecting many of the decisions being made right now, companies need to keep employee travel plans flexible. For companies that are still allowing travel, request that employees book airline fares that can be canceled or rebooked without penalty, and hotel rooms that can be canceled without penalty. This way, if a conference or event is canceled, the company will not incur additional costs as a result of the employee canceling their trip.

Also, keep schedules flexible. For any upcoming conferences that have yet to be booked, wait. Watch the website for the conference daily to see if the main sponsors are still attending, and if any news is released about the event. Ask employees to wait as long as possible before booking airfare and hotel.

To encourage travel, some airlines are offering free flight cancellations or changes on all newly-booked flights. JetBlue is offering free flight cancellations or changes on all flights booked between February 27 and March 11, if the flight is completed by June 1, 2020, and the credit can be used for future travel. Alaska Airlines is also allowing new tickets booked from February 27 through March 12 for travel through June 1, 2020 to be cancelled or changed and the funds used for future travel.

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What to tell employees regarding travel and the coronavirus

As previously reported in TechRepublic, Emma Follansbee, an associate at The National Law Review, recommended what employers should do, and what they should avoid, when discussing travel and the coronavirus with employees:

  • Provide education and information on the virus  — Be brief and repeat what official sources have stated without adding information.The communication goal is to instill confidence in employees that the company is taking proactive steps as necessary
  • Reinforce sick leave policies — The flu season has been worse than usual in the US this season. This is a good time to reiterate sick leave policies. Follansbee also recommends training managers to send people home if they are sick.
  • Consider a temporary travel opt-out policy — Employers should consider temporarily suspending travel directly to a region with a high number of coronavirus cases. Follansbee also suggested that companies consider requiring employees traveling to or from the infected regions to refrain from reporting to work.
  • Don’t offer medical opinions and misinformation: Take a “less is more” approach.
  • Don’t institute employee medical examinations and quarantines: Employers that isolate or quarantine employees when public health agencies have not yet done could be violating protections under the Americans With Disability Act, medical privacy laws, and state wage and hour laws.
  • Don’t use selective enforcement of travel opt-outs: This policy must be applied equally across all employees. For example, employers cannot require pregnant or disabled employees to opt out of travel, while requiring other employees to continue traveling to a region.
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