The government furlough scheme, where the government paid a proportion of workers’ wages when their employers were unable to, ended on 30 September 2021 after 18 months. Around one million workers were thought to be on furlough when the scheme ended.

Whilst many employers are looking to welcome their furloughed employees back to work, some may need to review their workforce and current requirements if their business has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels of profitability. David McBride, Head of Employment at Bray & Bray, explains the key considerations for employers post-furlough, and provides guidance on next steps.

Ending furlough

The coronavirus job retention scheme (furlough) ended on 30 September 2021. When furlough was extended, businesses had the flexibility to bring furloughed employees back to work on a part-time basis or furlough them full-time.

Employers must now submit claims for September wages by 14 October 2021 and make any amendments by 28 October 2021. To end furlough, employers should give staff notice in writing. Once a furlough agreement ends, the employer and employer return to their earlier contractual agreements unless a change is agreed.

It is important that employers provide staff with enough notice as possible with regards to ending their furlough and encourage staff to raise any concerns or issues about their return to work or the workplace.

Review your workforce

Whilst many markets are picking back up again, some are still experiencing uncertain trading conditions, and this may mean that employers are unable to sustain their current workforce.

Employers should begin by carefully conducting a workforce review by looking at the various job roles within the business, assessing the workload of each area and determining the location in which the job can be carried out. This will help employers to decide if a restructure is required and what it may entail, for example, adjusting working practices so more employees are working from home or in a hybrid way.

It is also best practice for employers to gauge their employees’ views on any changes to working practices by means of an internal survey.

Adjusting working practices

There are several alternatives to redundancy that employers may wish to consider now furlough has ended, should they be unable to return staff to their pre-pandemic contractual agreements.

These include:

  • Short-time working or reduced hours: If there is a temporary downturn of work, employers might want to place employees on reduced hours outside of the furlough scheme and only pay for the hours they work.
  • Reduced pay: Employees may agree to work the same but on reduced pay, short-term or long-term (payment must not be below the National Minimum Wage).
  • Flexible working: If, for example, a workplace cannot operate at full capacity in a COVID-safe way, or it needs to cut your costs, businesses may wish to agree on flexible or hybrid working for staff. Flexible working encompasses part-time working, term-time working, job-sharing, flexitime, compressed hours and zero-hours contracts, so there are plenty of options for employers and employees to consider and discuss. In the UK, all employees have the right to request flexible working and the government has recently announced plans to make the right to request it a day one entitlement. As a result, any rejection of a flexible working request would need to be solidly supported.
  • Redeployment: Employers may decide to move employees to other areas of the business where there is more demand, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Lay-offs or unpaid leave: If it’s not viable to keep an employee on the furlough scheme due to contributions, or they aren’t eligible, employers may want to discuss the option of unpaid leave.

In all cases, employees must be consulted and provide written consent for changes to their contract to be made, unless their existing employment contract says otherwise.

For more information about changes to working practices in the post-pandemic workplace, read our blog here.

Redundancies post-furlough

If the end of the furlough scheme and government financial support means that redundancies are ultimately necessary, employers must follow a fair process and make sure not to single out those who have been on furlough, or act in a discriminatory manner, as was demonstrated in the recent case of Mrs Thompson v Scancrown Ltd.

The usual obligation to consult staff about any redundancy proposals and allow them to feedback and share concerns about the respond to the plans before they are finalised continue to apply, irrespective of whether staff were furloughed or not.

A collective consultation requirement will be triggered if an employer intends to make more than 20 people redundant in a 90-day period. This involves a minimum consultation period during which redundancy dismissals cannot take effect.

Although, sadly, redundancies may be unavoidable, it is important that employers treat each individual member of staff with compassion and dignity throughout the process. Maintaining regular, transparent and two-way communication is key, and can make a significant difference to the employee’s experience.

Speak to our team

Bray & Bray’s employment team can provide specialist advice and support on workforce management, adjusting working practices and the redundancy process now furlough has ended.

Our employment lawyers are based at each of our four offices in Leicestershire. Contact us by calling or clicking on the link below, or pop into one of our offices.

Leicester: call us on 0116 254 8871.

Hinckley: call us on 01455 639 900.

Market Harborough: call us on 01858 467 181.

Corby: call us on 01536 851050.