In March, the UK government announced a series of wide-ranging measures to help businesses and employees struggling to cope with the pandemic, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, which has subsidised the wages of some 9.6 million jobs at a cost of £39.3bn.
The furlough scheme is fast drawing to its close on 31 October and will be replaced next month by a new job support scheme, which will top up the wages of workers on reduced hours. Crucially, the scheme focuses on bringing employees back into what chancellor Rishi Sunak described as “viable jobs”, and only employees working at least a third of their hours will be eligible for support.
As such, many businesses are currently evaluating how to effectively transition furloughed staff back to work. People Management asked HR and employment law specialists what employers need to consider as they bring people back over the coming weeks.
How much notice do employers need to give workers they are bringing back?
There is no specific notice period outlined by the government for bringing staff back from furlough, but the automatic cut-off for the scheme is the end of the month. As such, employers will need to move quickly to decide if they are able to bring staff back to work.
Barry Ross, director of Crossland Employment Solicitors, advises employers to check to see if they agreed to any notice period with staff for returning to work after furlough. “Other than what has been agreed between you, there is no minimum or maximum period of notice to provide or specific process to follow.”
He advises that sensible, clear communication is key when bringing staff back. If you’re not bringing everyone back, he says, it’s important to be mindful of any potential unfairness or discrimination in selecting one employee over another as this could result in claims against the company later down the line.
Does HMRC need to be informed when individuals come off furlough?
Employers do not need to notify HMRC that they have brought staff back from furlough before the scheme ends, says Joanne Moseley, senior associate at Irwin Mitchell. But, she cautions, employers must only claim for the period when workers were actively on the scheme, and keep diligent records of claims made, how they were calculated and – for those on flexible furlough – the hours worked.
She adds that employers should check to make sure they have not over-claimed funding through the scheme. If a mistake has been made, there is a limited period to put things right and notify HMRC before the tax body can level income tax charges and penalties, Moseley says.
How should employers approach renegotiating short-time hours?
Employers that can’t return staff to their pre-furlough working hours will need to negotiate changes with them, Moseley warns. This can only be done through an agreement reached between the employer and staff who will be affected by the change. “Employers may find their staff more receptive to accepting fewer hours if they have managed their expectations and kept staff aware of the difficulties they are facing,” Moseley says. “If the choice is between accepting fewer hours and redundancy, many people will opt to keep their jobs in this uncertain climate.”
She adds employers will also have to collectively consult with trade unions or elected employee representatives if they want to make changes to the contractual terms of at least 20 employees at one establishment. “This is because, if employers want to change terms without agreement, they may have to dismiss and then offer to re-engage employees on the new terms,” she says.
How should firms communicate with returning staff, and what happens if they can't contact someone?
There is no one way to communicate with furloughed staff, explains Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR. Email, video calls and traditional phone calls are all legitimate methods, and line managers are usually best placed to have discussions with employees about what method is best for each individual.
When discussing returning to work, “employers should cover what the employee’s role will be and if their role has changed, the number of hours they are required to work and what their daily working hours will be,” Price says. “If a contract’s terms are being changed to accommodate reduced hours, then reaching an agreement should be the main focus of the meeting.”
Employers should try all necessary means to reach a furloughed employee – including emails to their work and personal email addresses, phone calls, and letters to their registered home address. But if a worker still can’t be reached and they fail to return to work, employers may be able to class this as an absence. But Price cautions against rushing to dismissal processes: “[Employees] should instead give the employee a reasonable length of time to respond first before issuing dismissals.”
How should employers reintroduce staff to projects and manage their workloads?
Open communication and clear expectations are critical when reintroducing furloughed staff back into the workforce, says Sandra McLellan, founder and director of HR Inspire. She explains that reintegrating employees from furlough might take some time as staff could be nervous about changes in the organisation, new potential clients and generally starting to work again after a period of time off.
"You could buddy up somebody that's furloughed and a non-furloughed worker so they're able to transition back into the workforce and see any changes within the organisation," McLellan suggests, adding that support systems are even more important if a furloughed employee has been assigned to a different department or role. Where most staff are still working remotely, regular morning team "huddles" to discuss what is going on within the organisation, projects and to just generally catch up, will be key.
Employers should also be aware that workers might have been shielding or self-isolating, or had personal issues crop up, during their time away from work. "It's an emotional time," McLellan says. "Unless an employee actually comes out and says what's wrong, it may not be obvious that they're struggling when they start back at work.
“You can't underestimate the effect this transition will have on people and their wellbeing," McLellan says.
What support is available after the furlough scheme ends?
All employers can claim a £1,000 grant for every worker brought back from furlough and kept in employment until at least 31 January 2021. To be eligible for this job retention bonus, retained employees must have earned at least £520 per month on average between 1 November 2020 and 31 January 2021. Employers will be able to claim after they have filed PAYE in January 2021, with payments expected to be made in February 2021.
Last month Sunak also announced the job support scheme, the successor to the job retention scheme, which will start on 1 November. Under this new scheme, the government will top up the wages of employees on reduced hours.
Who is eligible for the job support scheme?
To be eligible, employees need to be working at least a third of their normal hours, for which the employer will pay them as normal. Employers must also pay the employee a third of their wages missed because of their reduced hours, with the government contributing another third to a cap of £697.92 per month. “Employers’ contribution of one-third of pay for hours not worked is, however, not subject to a monetary cap,” says Price.
Employees must be on an employer’s PAYE payroll on or before 23 September 2020. Employers will be able to make a claim online from December 2020 on a monthly basis, and grants will be payable in arrears after payment to the employee has been made and that payment has been reported to HMRC. The scheme is also restricted to small and medium sized businesses and to large businesses that can show their turnover has fallen as a result of the crisis. It will run for six months until 30 April 2021.