Furlough-a term that has entered the vocabulary of the working population with such speed that it seems that it has been around for years. Of course, other countries such as Germany, already had similar schemes in place pre-pandemic and the provisions were more familiar to employers and employees alike. This made the process of roll-out much easier. Some three million people have been moved off furlough since March 2021 stimulate by the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the reduction of UK government financial support. The big question now is – what next?
We look at some of the options open to employers below: -
Employees return on their pre-furlough terms and conditions
This may seem to be straightforward but should be managed with care and sensitivity.
The furlough agreement would, in an ideal world, outline the steps that need to be taken to facilitate this. However, if this has not been covered, you should give the employee reasonable written notice that they are being brought back from furlough and the ramifications of this including work expectations, salary and any changes that have taken place.
It is also imperative to think about the mental fitness of returning employees and that health and safety assessments are undertaken. Any specific needs of employees must be carefully addressed. Some employees may need refresher training on aspects of their jobs or new skills training to ensure that they can perform their contractual duties (including any revised duties).
Ending furlough and bringing staff back to work on reduced hours and pay
Proceed with care. This option is likely to appeal to employers who do not need full-time staff, want to see how business develops and how much “work” will be required.
This would entail a variation to terms and conditions of employment and will require employees’ written consent.
We would advise that advice is taken in advance on embarking on this route.
Ending furlough and bringing staff back to work on the same hours but on a lower level of pay
Many employers would see this as a very favourable option but again advice must be taken before taking this step.
The process is very similar to option 2 above and consent is key. Forcing through any change could lead to low staff morale, constructive dismissal claims and loss of key employees.
Extending furlough Government financial support
This is always an option open to employers but unless it is managed carefully it could be an expensive option for employers. It does however introduce an element of flexibility and allow employers to manage work flows more effectively. If this option is pursued then clear communication with employees is key and also documented with the employees.
Short-time working and lay-off
Contractual clauses regarding short-time working and lay-off were very common in the 1970’s and 1980’s but largely disappeared from standard contracts. If the contract does not provide for this then it is a route which will require careful consultation and reasonable notice to enforce.
Go through a redundancy procedure
The option of last resort. Make sure that if you embark on this route, that the following matters are considered: -
That it is the role that is potentially redundant not the person.
That the selection pools are fair, reasonable and appropriate.
Consideration of suitable alternative employment is given appropriate weight.
Do not automatically select furloughed employees for redundancy.
Think about equality issues such as gender, age and disability related factors.
This is a real time of transformation and change. In many ways this is challenging but also creates opportunities for employers and employees alike. It must be managed carefully and pragmatically to ensure that any changes can be embedded in an efficient and productive way.