Employee care | How to manage absence for furloughed employees

How to manage absence for furloughed employees

By Mike Fitzsimmons, Senior HR Consultant, Moorepay

Every year, absence spikes during the summer months. Despite the general downward trend in absence rate over the last decade, with lockdown restrictions lifting this year, mental health concerns catalysed by Covid-19, and presenteeism and leavism increasing, we predict things are going to get more complicated in summer 2021.

But how does this affect your employees who are furloughed as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS)? Can furloughed employees be "absent"?

What happens when a furloughed worker becomes ill?

As we'll discuss in more detail later, the furlough scheme is not intended to replace statutory sick pay (SSP). However, if someone is already on furlough and becomes sick, current government guidance suggests it may be possible to continue furlough at the employer's discretion.

If the worker remains furloughed, their salary can continue to be claimed through the furlough scheme. If you move the employee onto sick pay, you will have to pay the SSP or company / occupational sick pay (OSP) due and can't claim for the employee’s salary through the CJRS. To clarify, an employee cannot be both on SSP and furloughed at the same time.

Employers with fewer than 250 employees can use the new Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme. which repays up to two weeks' SSP for workers who can't work due to self-isolation or catching coronavirus.

If an employee is ill for a long-term period of absence, isolation or fit notes are now able to be obtained from NHS 111 online.

What happens when workers on flexible or rotating furlough falls ill?

For those on flexible furlough arrangements who fall ill or have to self-isolate, the same rule applies: the worker can either stay furloughed or can be paid SSP or OSP, at your company's discretion.

An employee cannot be both on SSP and the CJRS at the same time.

Are furloughed workers obliged to let the employer know when they're sick?

One issue that managers might be facing is that furloughed workers may not want to tell their employer that they are required to self-isolate or even if they become sick, particularly if it is within the employees' interests to keep the CJRS payments rather than drop to SSP.

Strictly speaking, staff should tell their employer if they are self-isolating or have symptoms. However, an employee may argue they’re not ‘at work’ when on furlough so they don’t believe they have to. Despite this, there is a legal requirement for staff to inform their employer, especially if they are on flexible or rotating furlough.

As this is new territory for employees, don’t be surprised if someone on long-term furlough doesn't realise this is the case or forgets to keep you up to date: remind them now and then if need be.

Can an employee on sick leave be furloughed?

The CJRS is not intended to cover short-term sickness absence, however, according to current government guidance, an employee can be moved from sick leave onto furlough if they are currently absent due to illness.

To go into more detail, the guidance states that short-term illness or self-isolation should not be a consideration when deciding whether to furlough an employee. After all, the scheme was made to prevent redundancies, and using it to cover short or long-term absence that was not brought about by Covid-19 is considered an abuse of that scheme. (Note that using CJRS to cover absence due to a factor brought about by Covid-19, such as caring responsibilities and shielding, is fine.)

If you’re considering furloughing an employee due to business reasons (such as you don't have the capacity to fulfil their role at the moment) and they are currently off sick, the guidance states that they are eligible to do so, as with your other employees.

We'd recommend putting together a business case as to why this employee is being furloughed to back up your decision if your choices are ever investigated.

Can an employee who is shielding be furloughed?

According to guidance, employees who are shielding in line with government guidance, such as being clinically vulnerable, can be furloughed.

What happens when a furloughed employee, who is still doing work for your company, is absent?

When furloughed, employees should not be doing any work for your company that provides service or makes money for your company. If they do so, you may have to repay the grant. So, if fully furloughed employees refuse to do work for your company, or appear absent from tasks you assign them, then they are simply following the correct procedure, and potentially protecting your business from the repercussions.

For employees who are on flexible or rota furlough, the employer has the right to expect someone to turn up to their designated days at work - there is no employee embargo on working when it’s appropriate. However, care would need to be taken if the employee refuses to come to work because, for example, they are worried about Covid-19, or are absent without leave. Refusing to work is, under normal circumstances, a serious disciplinary issue after all.

In certain circumstances, an employer can ask an employee to undertake training, providing that it does not include services to or generate income for the organisation. If an employee does not turn up to their training period as expected - without a good reason - then they could be subject to disciplinary action in line with the usual process.

How do I manage previously furloughed workers returning to the workplace?

Returning to the workplace after a long period of being on furlough can be stressful. Your staff might be concerned about catching or spreading the virus, negative implications of returning to work such as long and risky commutes, or simply feel ill-prepared after some time off. To make this transition easier, we'd recommend a consistent approach across staff members.

Arranging one-to-one catch-ups between the furloughed employees and their managers prior to their return can help to see how they're feeling about the transition and if there are any worries you can help alleviate. Could a phased return to work help them settle into the role again and pick up where they left off? Have you considered wellbeing arrangements, understanding the impact this pandemic has had on mental health? If there’s a light workload for them whilst business continues to pick up, considering a flexible furlough arrangement might be a good middle-ground before fully furloughed staff return to the office full time.

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