How should employers prepare for a post-furlough world?
HR professionals countrywide have been immersed in the development of furlough from a concept introduced by Rishi Sunak on 20 March 2020 to a scheme involving over 7.5 million workers. But what factors should employers be considering ahead of the furlough period coming to an end?
Under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, employees are eligible for furlough until the end of October 2020. The scheme will change in its operation from 1st August 2020, where employees will be able to return to work on a part time basis. When this happens, employers will be asked to make a contribution to employees’ wages. This is a move from the government to encourage employees to return back to work and boost the economy.
With employees returning to work in the next few months, it is vital that employers are aware of key changes that they will need to consider. The impact of COVID-19 has been felt across all industries in some shape or form and unprecedented change for employers is inevitable in the current climate.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has certainly been a blessing for employers struggling in the current situation, but it will not be in place forever.
1. Notice to employees confirming end of furlough
Where an employee has been placed on furlough leave there is agreement from both parties – the employee and the employer – for a change in contractual terms of employment. This should have been confirmed in writing by the employer when they placed the employee on furlough.
Many employers used this written confirmation as an opportunity to outline the process for how furlough leave would be ended. If this step was taken, the employer should follow this policy or process. If no guidance was provided, it is still advisable to provide notice in writing to employees. This will give employees the chance to voice any questions or concerns they have with returning to work and the end of furlough leave, and it will avoid any doubt regarding the contractual arrangement between the parties.
If an employee has not received confirmation from their employer that their furlough leave is ending, it is important to remain patient. This is a new situation for all involved, so it may take an employer some time to write to employees with this information.
If an employee is concerned, they can write to their employer to request an update on the situation. It is best to keep all correspondence in writing to avoid any miscommunication between employee and employer.
2. Changes to the workplace
It was announced on 10th May 2020 in a speech by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the government planned to re-open nurseries and schools for pupils in reception, year one and year six from 1st June 2020.
This is a small step towards normality, but with many children still at home it will be nigh on impossible for many parents and carers to return to work. Childcare commitments should be taken on board by employers when deciding the next steps after furlough.
Mr Johnson himself said “I think it’s only fair to regard that [no access to childcare] as an obvious barrier to their [employees] ability to go back to work and I’m sure employers would agree with that”.
In his speech, Mr Johnson also spoke about “actively encouraging” the nation to return to work. The idea of returning to the workplace during the pandemic will be scary for some employees, who may feel unsafe returning to work in the current state of affairs. They may be unhappy commuting into work on packed trains and buses, where unfortunately many members of the public are simply ignoring the social distancing guidelines published by the government.
The end of furlough does not mean that everything will go back to normal.
The government has introduced guidance setting out the steps employers should take to ensure a workplace is safe. Some measures an employer can take include carrying out a risk assessment, regularly wiping down surfaces and enforcing a two-metre distance between employees (or managing the transmission risk).
However, a return to work does not necessarily mean a return to the workplace. A solution for employers in this predicament is to encourage homeworking where appropriate. The guidance states “work from home, if you can”.
Of course, for some industries it would be impossible to continue your work from home. However, office-based roles, for example, would certainly reap the benefits of homeworking and this change in environment. Homeworking would allow these employees to continue their work in a familiar, and more importantly safe, environment.
Employers will need to ensure that they continue to monitor their employee’s performance and productivity. A homeworking policy would be one way to support this, as it would clarify the expectations on both parties when working from home.
3. Changes to the workforce
Unfortunately, the end of furlough will undoubtedly lead to many jobs being placed at high risk as businesses are simply unable to operate at normal capacity following the impact of the pandemic.
In the last few months we have seen several industries brought to a halt. For example the travel industry is nigh on non-existent at the moment with the various travel bans across the world. The effects of this are already being felt by employees, as sources state that British Airways has planned to make 12,000 staff redundant. The travel industry is just one example of the impact businesses across the country (and worldwide) are facing.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has certainly been a blessing for employers struggling in the current situation, but it will not be in place forever. Once it is over, employers will have to consciously consider how they will continue to pay salaries without their usual income. Inevitably this will lead to employees losing their jobs as cost-cutting measures will be needed.
To avoid potential employment tribunal claims for unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal, employers will need to ensure they carry out any process correctly. Some options that employers can consider include redundancy and lay off/short time working (provided there is provision for this in the employee’s contract of employment). Other options can also be considered with the employees express written consent, such as a reduction in hours or reduction in salary.
A 'new normal' not 'back to normal'
The end of furlough does not mean that everything will go back to normal. The term ‘new normal’ has been floated around by commentators to describe the realities we will face daily for the foreseeable future whilst we are tackling the pandemic.
The ‘new normal’ will certainly be an appropriate way to describe the changes to the working world with unprecedented changes on the horizon.
Anita Kalra is Managing Director and Employment Solicitor at Kalra Legal Group.
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Anita is a qualified Employment Solicitor at Kalra Legal Group and has specialised in Employment Law since 2009. Anita has specialised in Employment Law for over 10 years’ and has extensive experience acting on behalf of employees and employers before employment tribunals across England,...