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County considering travel policy for employees

Freeborn County officials are considering a new policy requiring county employees to work from home for 14 days following a vacation to a high-risk COVID-19 area out of an effort to mitigate potential spread of the virus to co-workers and members of the public. 

County Human Resources Director Candace Pesch said in a commissioner workshop Tuesday that her department has explored potential risks and concerns associated with travel by employees and the potential liability the county may have if a COVID-19 infection were to occur amongst county employees or in the course of providing statutorily required services. 

She said there have been instances where some employees are suing their employer because they have contracted COVID-19 while at work.  

She said she doesn’t think it is responsible for the county as an employer to allow an employee to go to places like Las Vegas or Sturgis, where there are large gatherings of people and where social distancing and masks may not be enforced, and then to immediately come back to work. 

“I don’t want to tell anyone they can’t go on vacation … but if you choose to do that, we are going to ask you to work from home for 14 days,” Pesch said of the proposal, noting if people can’t work from home, they can use sick time to cover their absence. 

If an employee contracts COVID-19, the county would cover the employee’s absence. 

The policy would be on a case-by-case basis and would be evaluated based on risk of the location that the employee traveled. The policy would also cover attendance at large gatherings with other 50 people where social distancing or mask rules are not followed.

Third District Commissioner Jim Nelson said he supported the policy to ensure that employees were not coming to work having been potentially exposed to the virus. 

County Administrator Tom Jensen said there are strong feelings on both sides regarding this issue, both on the employee and the risk-management sides.

“This is a no-win, but we’re trying to do what we think is the best route for the county and the employees who deserve to be safe where they’re at,” Jensen said. 

He said the county would not be regulating where people could go or if they take a vacation, but if employees are going to travel somewhere where there’s high risk, he hoped they would have the courtesy to protect their co-workers and the public. He noted management would have to rely heavily on staff being forthcoming about their vacations and about keeping others’ best interests in mind.  

Fifth District Commissioner Mike Lee recommended the county be “better safe than sorry” and said he could not forgive himself if the board opted not to do anything and the county ended up with several people who were sick. 

The policy will come before the board for a vote at an upcoming meeting.