The novel coronavirus outbreak that began in Wuhan, China is making its way across the world, causing a highly contagious disease known as COVID-19 which causes respiratory symptoms and can be serious for certain patients. The coronavirus outbreak in the UK has put the economy under a huge amount of strain, with many businesses across the country forced to temporarily close down in order to prevent the spread of the disease amongst the public and keep everybody safe.
Following discussions with trade unions, the Government decided to invest billions of pounds into a furlough scheme, which will allow businesses to continue paying 80% of wages to employees who have been temporarily laid off as a result. The aim is to prevent businesses who are likely to suffer as a result of COVID-19 from making workers permanently redundant, and will ensure that employees who are unable to go to work will have enough money to cover their expenses, leaving businesses in a better place to resume activity once things get back to normal and demand begins to rise again.
But, while these measures to protect jobs are certainly welcome, it’s important that both employers and employees follow the rules and know their rights in a furlough situation.
What must employers do?
Bosses need to follow the rules when it comes to furlough. They are unable to just place staff on furlough without good reason or place them on shorter hours instead. An employee is regarded to have been laid off during any particular week when the employer does not have sufficient work for the employee, leading to the employee not being paid as a result. Therefore, the furlough scheme can only be used when the business is unable to provide the employee with work as a result of decreased demand or a temporary shut-down in response to the coronavirus lockdown.
What’s in your contract?
Depending on the terms of your employment contract, your employer might retain the right to impose a lay-off. However, in order to take advantage of the furlough scheme, you should be laid off for a reasonable period of time, rather than indefinitely. Generally, provision for minimum payments will be agreed collectively between employers and unions if employees are laid off for a certain period.
If the right to impose a lay-off is not included in your contract, your employer will need your informed consent in writing in order to do so, and they will need to clearly explain to you how long you can expect to be laid off for. The lay-off should be kept under review, and your employer will need to seek further consent from the employee if it lasts for longer than initially expected.
What if you don’t give consent?
If your employer requires your content to impose a lay-off and you or your union object to it, then your employer cannot simply impose it. If a worker refuses to provide consent and the employer attempts to go ahead with the lay-off anyway, the employee can resign and claim unfair constructive dismissal, and potentially claim a statutory redundancy payment. Or, they have the option to continue working for the employer but will need to be prepared to accept a shortfall in pay, under the unauthorised deduction of wages laws.
If your employer is attempting to or has laid you off from work even though your consent was required and you did not provide it, you might want to consider getting advice from employment solicitors regarding your next steps. If you plan to claim for unfair constructive dismissal against your employer, then you will need the support of experienced employment law solicitors to ensure that your claim runs smoothly. A good place to start is the site qredible.co.uk which lists some of the top employment solicitors in the UK. If you find one who you think can help, you can give them a call and get the conversation going. Bear in mind that in-person tribunal meetings are unlikely to be going ahead at the moment, and most of the contact you have with your solicitor is likely to be virtual.
How much can I expect to get paid?
If you take advantage of the furlough scheme as an employee, you might be wondering how much you can expect to get paid. The government has pledged to cover 80% of the wage costs of any employees who are laid off as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, along with employer costs such as National insurance payments and pension payments. However, the furlough scheme is only to cover basic salary and will not cover any commission payments that you usually receive. It is capped at £2,500 per month. Where employers are able to afford to do so, they should top up wages so that the employee is being paid 100% of their basic wage. If you pay varies, your employer can claim for your average monthly earnings from the 2019-20 tax year or the amount you earned in the same month last year, depending on which is highest.
Can I still work while on furlough?
Whether or not you can work while on furlough will depend on your individual circumstances. If you work two jobs and are furloughed from one and not the other, the furlough arrangement will apply to the single job that you are laid off from, and you can continue working in the other job. If you are laid off from both jobs, you can be furloughed from both at the same time as the pay cap applies to each individual employer. A furloughed employee is not allowed to work for the employer that has furloughed them during the time that they receive furlough payments. You will be able to take part in training or volunteer work, as long as it does not provide a service to or generate any revenue for the employer. Your employer should pay you at least minimum wage for any training you complete on furlough.
The coronavirus outbreak in the UK has caused life as we know it to change significantly and for many people, this means being out of work for a while. If you’ve been laid off by your employer, knowing your rights is important.