First, it was Covid, and now, abortion restrictions and laws against LGBTQ+ are complicating business travel.

Some corporate travel planners and HR executives are quietly addressing an expanding set of risks to employees as business travel returns to 2019 levels with diminishing concerns about Covid-19. However, as abortion restrictions tighten, and laws against LGBTQ+ gain momentum, some employers and event organizers are considering a new set of safety threats for employees beyond the office.

Business travel is returning to 2019 levels as concerns about Covid-19 largely subside. Still, as abortion restrictions tighten, and laws against LGBTQ+ gain momentum, some employers and event organizers are weighing a new set of safety threats for employees outside of the office.

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, dozens of states have restricted access to abortion, and over 180 bills limiting LGBTQ+ rights are progressing through state legislatures across the country. Many of these actions have faced criticism for political and civil rights reasons, with companies and event organizers threatening state boycotts similar to the one that led North Carolina to repeal a transgender bathroom law in 2016.

However, conservative "anti-woke" messaging has made many companies reluctant to publicly align with progressive ideals. Some are now taking a quieter approach to risk reduction, say corporate travel planners and HR experts.

"We are critically thinking about whom we're sending and where we're sending them and asking employees if they are comfortable traveling to a state that has demonstrated they are not inclusive toward people with certain identities," said Sierra Gross, CEO of the consulting firm Caged Bird HR. "In some of these states, we may jeopardize someone's physical and psychological safety."

While civil rights groups (and the Canadian government) have issued warnings about the risks associated with this legislation, some parts of the tourism industry and local advocates have opposed boycotts, arguing they harm hospitality workers and minority-owned businesses and rarely change policy. Last month, California lawmakers voted to end the state employee travel ban to 26 states with anti-LGBTQ+ policies, replacing it with a public information campaign.

An April survey by the SAP Concur platform found that 82% of LGBTQ+ business travelers changed accommodations at least once in the past 12 months because they felt unsafe, compared to 70% of U.S. business travelers overall and 53% worldwide.

For many employees, these concerns are nothing new; they have long had to be particularly vigilant about their safety with little support from their employers. However, companies and tourism managers are now feeling a "sense of importance and urgency" to review their policies, said Charlie Sultan, president of Concur Travel.

The last time this happened on a broad scale was when Covid-19 struck, leading businesses to review their policies supporting the so-called "duty of care" for employee safety in the workplace.

While most companies now have protocols to deal with Covid transmission, some are only beginning to grapple with other scenarios: What if a pregnant employee needs urgent medical care while traveling in a state where abortions are illegal? Or a transgender employee faces confrontation somewhere where there's no gender identity protection in public spaces?

Lauren Venanz, CEO of HR management consulting firm Next Level Benefits, said some of her corporate clients have started creating lists of potentially problematic places for employees to visit. Others are adopting non-retribution policies "that allow employees to express concerns, set boundaries, or opt-out of travel" to specific areas, she said.

PlanHub, a construction tender platform, "rigorously assesses potential risks related to the legal and political situation in different regions," said Kimberly Rogan, the company's chief of staff and head of HR. "We have enhanced our recommendations to better inform employees about these factors and provide clear instructions on how to navigate them."