Speaking in parliament yesterday (2 November), prime minister Boris Johnson emphasised this second national lockdown will not be as stringent as the first. England will not be “going back to the full-scale lockdown of March and April”, he confirmed.
Nonetheless employers across the country – particularly those in sectors most affected as a result of being told to close public-facing venues – are having to put their staff back on furlough at very short notice. As a result of the extremely last-minute nature of the announcement of the scheme’s extension for another month, a number of questions remain unanswered on how businesses can make use of this support.
So People Management asked the experts to shed light on some key queries and grey areas...
Can staff not furloughed previously now be put on the scheme?
The rules this time around are slightly different to the original and flexible furlough scheme. Staff not previously furloughed can be put on the extended scheme provided they were on their employer’s PAYE payroll by 23.59pm on Friday 30 October 2020, and provided the employer submitted real-time information about them to HMRC by that date and time. Joanne Moseley, senior associate at Irwin Mitchell, says this means news starters and people who have not previously been furloughed will qualify. “Other than that, the rules will mirror those under the original and flexible schemes and employees can be on any type of contract,” she adds.
How should an organisation approach staff who were building up to return to work but will now stay furloughed?
Similarly to the first lockdown and subsequent months of furlough, communication will be key. And ensuring staff who were looking forward to, and psyching themselves up for, returning to work aren’t now demoralised and psychologically in a tough, uncertain place, will be critical. Peter Campbell, HR consultant at hr inspire, says employers must contact staff as soon as possible to explain what has happened and how it will affect them. “We recommend that organisations ensure they call employees rather than send emails. Then follow up with letters and emails,” Campbell advises. “They should then hold weekly catch-ups by phone or video calls and consider ad-hoc interventions to support employees’ wellbeing.”
Is it possible to bring back and then furlough workers recently made redundant?
Given the original furlough scheme allowed employers to rehire employees who were made redundant before it was launched, it’s possible the extension will work in this same way. But, says Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at Fieldfisher, the government’s current guidance for the new restrictions has not made it clear if this will be an option for employers. “The belief is that it will be possible to bring back employees made redundant as this will be a crucial part of the scheme and drive to prevent mass redundancies,” Dhindsa says. “However, until we get this clarity employers should take legal advice on this.”
Speculation on social media and in the press that the government may have deliberately timed a last-minute announcement of the extension to save money on those already made redundant also won’t reassure employers and employees hoping the above will again be the case. And Moseley adds that, even if it is, bringing redundant staff back to furlough them is unlikely to be a practical option for many employers. “Even if it is possible, I can’t see many employers wanting to reinstate people just for a month – as they may have to go through the redundancy process again,” she says.
Can redundant staff be put on furlough while maintaining their redundancy?
Unfortunately, there has been no guidance on this as of yet, advises Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR. “We just don’t know this yet,” he says.
How does the flexible aspect of this furlough scheme work?
As under the current scheme, flexible furloughing will be allowed in addition to full-time furloughing. Businesses will have the option to bring furloughed employees back to work on a part-time basis or furlough them full time, and are allowed to claim furlough grants just for the time that employees are not working, with no minimum working hours required. “Currently, it appears the flexible aspects of furlough are still available for employers to use,” Dhindsa says. “So employers can still put employees on a part-time working schedule and then use the scheme grant for unworked hours.”
Should clinically vulnerable people be furloughed if they cannot work from home?
The government has said those over the age of 60 and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable should be "especially careful", but the prime minister advised that shielding would not be reinstated in the same way as it was during the previous lockdown. However, he also said vulnerable people should not go to work even if they could not work from home.
As such, Campbell recommends clinically vulnerable people are furloughed if they cannot work from home. But this must be agreed with workers, and it is important to stay in contact with these employees as “they will be particularly vulnerable” in terms of anxieties around feeling isolated and job security, he says.
How should employers plan for the end of the extended furlough scheme?
The government’s last-minute approach to the furlough extension has made it difficult for businesses to plan their next move, says Moseley. Employers were gearing themselves up for the job support scheme to open but found out with just hours notice that the furlough scheme was going to be extended. “Many had already put in place written agreements with their staff, which they’ll now have to revisit to comply with the rules on furlough,” she says.
As for the future, the government has said it will not extend furlough again. So even if lockdown is extended further, there is no guarantee the scheme will be continued past its current early-December cut-off date, and employers should plan accordingly.