Older workers at higher risk of redundancy as furlough ends, experts warn

Commentators highlight danger of ‘polarised’ labour market as employers are reminded they still have a duty of care over returning workers

Older workers are at higher risk of being made redundant when the furlough scheme comes to an end today, a number of organisations have warned.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that up to 800,000 people could still be on the scheme as it closes, with the last official count released earlier this month finding over half a million over-50s were still on the scheme.

Stuart Lewis, founder of Rest Less, warned that while there were record job vacancies, the UK’s job market was still “polarised”.

“On the one hand, we have record job vacancies and companies struggling to hire talent in key areas – for example HGV drivers and healthcare. On the other side, unemployment levels across many age groups have yet to recover and we are seeing huge falls in economic activity amongst midlifers,” he said.

“We may well see hundreds of thousands of hard-working, experienced older workers enter redundancy and ultimately find themselves looking for a new job in the run-up to Christmas,” Lewis added.

This was echoed by Kirstie Donnelly, CEO at City & Guilds, who said that while specific interventions had been put in place for younger workers, there were “still few safety nets in place for older workers” and a “chronic under-investment” in training for older workers.

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“While the chancellor [Rishi Sunak] is hoping to prevent a spike in joblessness with his Plans for Jobs, these measures are heavily geared towards the young, and more is needed from the UK government to stem unemployment amongst older workers,” Donnelly said.

While the furlough scheme has largely been heralded as a success, with peak unemployment now expected to fall far short of the worst case scenarios forecast early on in the pandemic – many businesses are still expecting redundancies.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said she had seen a massive spike in the number of clients searching for information about the furlough scheme compared to recent months, with nearly two thirds of inquiries about the rules surrounding redundancies.

But, she stressed, while the furlough scheme was coming to an end, it was important to remember coronavirus wasn’t over. “Employers are still required to ensure a safe working environment to reassure staff that they aren't being put at risk of Covid in the workplace,” said Palmer, adding that changes made to statutory sick pay and rules around annual leave made during the pandemic still applied.

And while the policy of shielding had officially ended, employers still needed to consider their duty of care to clinically vulnerable employees.

“It's up to each employer to decide whether or not they will adopt a hybrid working pattern, implement permanent work from home arrangements or follow the government's advice to relax them and encourage employees back to the workplace,” she said.