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

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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.

Meanwhile, what can you do as the manager of the people who were impacted by this? One thing you can do is to advocate on their 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, 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 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 attempt to do jerk-ish things, but sometimes they reverse course if people object loudly enough.

my company held a retreat in a Zika zone — and is charging people who didn’t go for their plane tickets was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

HR

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November 30, 2016 at 02:01AM

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