What Does International Duty of Care Look Like Coming Out of COVID-19?

In a recent post, we discussed the importance of a duty of care plan as it relates to relocation, specifically the considerations when developing a new one or revising an existing plan. Given all the upheaval in the world around the coronavirus, many organizations are going through this very process to ensure their plan reflects their new reality.

As said before, duty of care plans will vary depending on an organization’s needs and employee base. For those relocating employees abroad, there always have been additional considerations such as cultural training and immigration assistance to ensure an employee’s assimilation is as smooth as possible.

Even for travel-hardened staff, moving abroad – especially if they have family in tow – carries unique stressors that aren’t as prevalent with domestic assignments. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated many of these stressors, while at the same time, creating new ones. Much remains in flux, but as companies begin to figure out their duty of care plans for a post-coronavirus landscape, there are some ideas and strategies to explore.

Be as clear and detailed as possible concerning health insurance and access

With all the conversation around the virus, several studies show people are now more conscious of and sensitive to their personal health. While access to health care always has been a widely recognized need, it’s to be expected that employees will have more questions about the details of their international health insurance and how to access care while abroad. This may be all the more important should their destination country’s health infrastructure be less advanced than what they are used to.

Companies should include additional review of their employee health insurance to ensure the assignee has some “fluency” of their plan and specifically where and how they should go about seeking care should they need it. And as much as an assignee may understand their plan when things are calm, should an emergency occur, it’s reasonable they still may need to talk with someone about seeking care. Identify and provide resources to make this as immediate and stress-free as possible – whether that’s 24/7 access to a benefits expert or an online care portal tailored to their plan and location.

Expand evacuation plan considerations for international assignments in previously deemed “safe” countries

Assignments in high-risk countries generally have necessitated procedures for evacuating an employee and their family should there be a situation that merits an immediate return home. With all that goes into an international assignment, evacuating an employee is usually a last resort after all other options have been explored and/or there is a real and dire threat to their safety.

Traditionally, situations like a military coup, economic collapse or natural disaster have prompted such evacuations, but as the pandemic has shown, even “safe and stable” countries quickly can be turned upside down. It’s critical your duty of care plan accounts for determining if and when an employee should be evacuated, and specifically how they and their belongings will be safely brought back to the United States during such an instance.

Similar to a more extensive review of their health coverage, evacuation plans are another area where employees should have some familiarity of what this will look like should it become necessary. Such events are defined by their upheaval and complexity; however, the more prepared employees can be, the less stressed they’ll feel despite the uncertainty going on around them.

Conduct workplace risk assessments for all facilities to provide consistent level of care

Inconsistent work environments can be an issue for any organization – not just those with international operations. Having certain facilities outfitted with what are perceived as nicer amenities has long been a sticking point for those employees without the same access at their own facility.  However, when those features are to keep people as safe as possible, there should be no discrepancy between locations.

In the United States, workplace safety is regulated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which mandates certain protections for employees. There are similar regulatory bodies in other countries, but not at all. Even if there are comparable entities, the level of care they may require might be less than of OSHA’s regulations. This is why organizations should conduct their own office risk assessments to ensure a consistent level of care and protection for all employees regardless of location around the world.

These assessments need to weigh the function of each facility, along with any notable cultural factors for international locations. Certainly, not every location should look the same or be burdened with the unique safety needs of a particular location, but there shouldn’t be a situation where an employee feels unsafe solely because they are at one location versus another.

COVID-19 has demonstrated just how quickly and unexpectedly international crises can occur. Many situations previously thought of as implausible now seem uncomfortably possible. Businesses need to account for this shift, particularly in how they can protect employees across the world. A good starting point is ensuring your duty of care plan reflects the evolving needs and concerns of your employees.

If you need help reassessing your company’s duty of care plan in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can help. Hilldrup specializes in assisting organizations navigating the many nuances associated with international relocation.


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