What happens after the furlough scheme ends?

14 September 2021

When does the furlough scheme end?

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), or furlough as it is better known, was extended until 30th September 2021. 

Why is the furlough scheme ending?

Furlough was introduced in spring 2020, to prevent staff being laid off by their employers during lockdown. As the restrictions lift across the country, it is time for employers to assess their business needs, and decide which jobs remain commercially viable. 

Whilst a third of Britain’s workforce were on furlough as recently as March 2021, Government data shows that almost three million people were moved off the scheme between March and the end of July 2021. This can be attributed to both the lifting of Covid restrictions through the successful roll out of the vaccine programme. As of July 2021 just 1.9 million workers were still in the scheme.

When must I make my claim for September?

Claims for furlough days in September 2021 must be made by 14 October 2021 and any amendments must be made by 28 October 2021 

What will happen to furloughed staff when the scheme ends?

There are three options for employers when furlough ends:

  • Bring employees off furlough and back working full-time hours
  • Bring employees off furlough and back working reduced hours and/or reduced pay
  • Make unviable employees redundant (ensuring a fair process is followed)

How do employers bring their employees back from furlough to full-time work in the office?

Bringing furloughed employees back to work on their pre-furlough terms and conditions should be relatively straight forward. Ideally the furlough agreement sets out guidance for how the process should be managed. In the absence of clear guidance, employers should aim to give their employees reasonable written notice of their intention to bring them back from furlough.

Employers should consider the steps required to ease their employees’ return, and communicate this to the workforce. The best place to start is to put a comprehensive policy in place across the whole business, outlining the measures you have taken as a company to secure the health and wellbeing of all of your employees, and lay out all of your expectations for them as members of staff. 

Supporting employees’ mental health and well-being should also be a consideration. Given the length of time workers have been away from the office, employers may wish to consider putting mechanisms in place to support them as they return to the workplace. Some simple adjustments to working hours to accommodate commuting outside of rush hour, being supportive of childcare and family commitments where possible will go a long way for marale. Refresher sessions and training, as well as team building exercises, may also help as they transition back to office life.

Can employees refuse to return to the workplace after furlough?

There are many reasons that a worker may be hesitant to return to the workplace, and I discuss this alongside how employers can manage each situation appropriately to avoid an abundance of employment claims in a previous article, this applies equally to staff who have been working from home as it does to those who have been on furlough. 

Dismissing an employee in response to their refusal to return to work could open the door to a claim for unfair dismissal if the employee has a minimum of two years’ service. An employer would need both a fair reason to dismiss and to follow a fair procedure prior to dismissal. If you are going to dismiss the employee on the basis of gross misconduct due to unauthorised absence, be sure that if the employee has raised legitimate concerns about returning to work that you have taken the necessary steps to show you have understood and attempted to remedy those concerns.

What should an employee do if they have safety concerns about returning to the workplace?

Employers should encourage an open discussion with their employees, and their first point of call should be their manager or the HR representative. If their concerns are not being addressed, employees can make a report to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

What flexible working rights do employees have?

Since 2014, any employee with more than 26 weeks’ service have a right to request flexible working for any reason. Employers have a duty to deal with such requests in a reasonable manner within three months, and can only reject the request for one or more of the eight business grounds specified in the legislation.

It is advisable that Employers take this opportunity to review their flexible working policies in preparation for an anticipated increase in requests, and ensure that any changes following their experience during the pandemic are accurately reflected.

Can staff be brought back from furlough on reduced hours, pay or other less favourable terms?

Bringing staff back to work on a part-time basis or on reduced pay is an option available to employers and is likely to be a common route taken by employers who do not expect a return to normal trading until the economy recovers and businesses return to full strength.

Reducing hours and pay is a change of terms and conditions so will need employees’ written consent. You may be more likely to reach an agreement on this if it is limited to a specific time period or conditional upon a specific event occurring as opposed to being open-ended.

Employees may also be prepared to take a broader view if the alternative is potential job losses, as they may decide that it is better to have a job in the current climate than none at all.

Can someone who has been on furlough be made redundant?

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to return to work when the furlough scheme ends. Sometimes the only way to cut costs sufficiently is to reduce headcount by making redundancies. 

Some additional measures that can be considered to avoid compulsory redundancies include restrictions on recruitment, offering alternative employment elsewhere within the company, re-training employees, voluntary redundancy or short-time working and restricting overtime

In order for any redundancy dismissal to be fair, employers should ensure it is a genuine redundancy situation and a fair procedure should be followed.

In most cases, an employer should have already started the redundancy process if it’s planning to let workers go by 30 September.

What preparations should be made for the end of furlough?

For employees, if a return to work is likely, getting back into a working routine and making enquiries regarding any childcare arrangements, family care commitments and commuting changes will help employees settle back in more easily. 

If a redundancy situation is more likely, preparing a CV, applying for jobs at financially stable companies, and saving money where possible to cover essential bills should the worst happen would be sensible advice.

For employers, now is the time to be thinking about what policies and processes are in place to ease employees back into office life and culture. It would be prudent to send clear communication to all furloughed employees to advise them of your intentions for their future, as well as discussing any concerns they may have with their new work situation. A review of work from home and flexible working policies would also be prudent.

Emma Gross
Partner – Employment, Data Protection
Emma Gross is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in Complex employment tribunal cases, data protection and the GDPR, negotiating settlements and advising on fair and reasonable redundancy procedures.