Six million furloughed staff continued to work from home, study suggests

A fifth of those on the job retention scheme during lockdown were directly asked by their employer to break the rules

Nearly two-thirds of furloughed employees have admitted to continuing to work from home while on the scheme, a major academic paper has found, with many explicitly asked to do so by their employer.

The study, by academics from the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Zurich, used real-time survey evidence of UK workers between April and May to find that 63 per cent of employees on the furlough scheme continued to work from home during these months.

According to official government figures, 9.4 million employees have so far been supported by the job retention scheme – meaning some six million people could have broken furlough rules.

The paper said the prohibition against working while on furlough was ‘routinely ignored’, with furloughed staff working an average of 15 hours per week. Men on higher incomes were most likely to flout the terms of the scheme.

Nearly one in five furloughed workers (19 per cent) reported being explicitly asked to work by their employer despite this being against the rules of the scheme. This increased to 44 per cent among those working in computer and mathematical occupations, and 35 per cent of workers in the IT sector.

The report said: “In our April survey wave, we explicitly asked workers whether their employer was formally rotating them back into work. When we restrict our sample to furloughed employees with a single job who report that their employers is not formally rotating them back into work, we still find that more than 60 per cent of furloughed employees report doing some work, with a 42 per cent reduction in weekly hours on average.”

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The findings came as the number of reported cases of furlough fraud increased by 53 per cent in two weeks. As of 22 July, HMRC had received 6,749 reports of abuse, compared to 4,400 at the end of June. Additionally, The Mail on Sunday reported that lawyers and whistleblower organisations had been “bombarded with calls from employees who claim to have been forced to work while furloughed”.

In a statement, HMRC said it was currently investigating 8,000 tip-offs made to its fraud hotline. It reported it had rejected 30,000 ‘dubious claims’. The body said it was currently writing to companies suspected of over-claiming and was using “sophisticated computer software” to find evidence of fraud.

Employers have 90 days to correct any errors in their claims or face having to repay the money on top of the same amount again as a fine. A spokesperson for HMRC said: “We are now starting to investigate claims in depth, paying particular attention to claims that are out of step with the payroll data that we hold.”

Previous research by Crossland Employment Solicitors of 2,000 furloughed employees found that a third (34 per cent) had been asked by their employer to commit furlough fraud by carrying out their normal work duties.