As of 10th May 2020, approximately 7.5 million jobs were furloughed in the UK as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). The scheme, introduced in response to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, covers 80 percent of employees’ wages, up to £2,500 a month. The CJRS was originally meant to end in June but the Chancellor has now extended it until the end of October 2020. While millions of Brits are now reliant on the government scheme to pay their wages, the rules around furloughed working are complex and many my be confused as to what their rights actually are and what they may or may not do whilst furloughed.
With the UK in the midst of a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic and with various regions having been placed into the top tier of the government’s tiered system (Tier 3) of local coronavirus restrictions, the furlough scheme has been hugely important. With the latest lockdown announced by the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, more people will be placed on one form or another of furlough and government support through the month of November, with the furlough scheme in the UK being extended to cover the month-long lockdown period.
It is as important as ever to understand the terms and conditions of being on furlough and what it means for employees, employers and the relationships between workers and their employers.
Can My Employer Ask Me to Keep Working on Furlough?
No, once your employer has notified you that you are on furlough, your employer can not ask you to undertake any more work.
What if My Employer Urgently Needs Me to Carry out Work Whilst Furloughed?
If there is a case of urgent work, and there is no employee currently working that can undertake it in your absence, an employer needs to take you off furlough before asking you to do it. After a minimum of three weeks, your employer can take you off leave temporarily to complete urgent tasks and then re-furlough you afterwards. The government guidance does not state a minimum period for a worker to be brought back to work, so it would be permitted to take an employee off furlough for just a day or two before re-furloughing them.
Can I Work for Someone Else While Furloughed?
Yes, it is possible for a furloughed employee to take on alternative work, so long as it does not breach regular contractual obligations with your current employer. For example, if your contract stipulates a Monday to Friday, 8-hour working day, an evening or weekend job may not breach contract. The employee guidance points out that you must to be able to return to work if you are recalled and must be able to undertake any training required by your employer. Furloughed staff with permission to take on other jobs are being encouraged to work as fruit and vegetable pickers to help farmers fill the labour shortage.
However, certain contracts of employment state that an employee must not work for any another employer without prior written consent, and you will have to come to an agreement with your employer before working for someone else. There is no obligation for the employer to provide this consent.
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Can I do Voluntary Work?
You are allowed to take on volunteer work, provided that the work does not provide services or generate revenue for the employer who has placed you on furlough. That may include roles to help manage the crisis, such as volunteering with the NHS or in foodbanks, so long as these remain optional and unpaid. In some cases, you can still take on voluntary work that has been organised by your employer, such as social and charitable events. However, any promotional activity falls under the purposes of generating revenue and would breach the CJRS.
Can I Undertake Training While Furloughed?
Yes, a furloughed employee can undertake any training that does not provide services to or make money for your employer. You may still be required by your employer to take training while furloughed, such as an online course. For example, people working in industries such as financial compliance in the UK, where constant training and updates are required may engage in the necessary training packages, ensuring they stay up to date with any competencies, qualifications and accreditations during the course of being furloughed. Whilst on furlough, you must be paid the relevant national minimum wage for any time spent training, even if this is more than the 80% of your salary that has been subsided.
Can I Attend Meetings and Check Work Emails on Furlough?
No, you should not attend work-related meetings or check emails, as this could be considered providing services to your employer. Attending a business meeting or responding to just one work email, would breach CJRS and could risk your furlough payment.
Can My Employer Still Contact Me?
Yes, you can remain in contact with your employer so long as you are not discussing actions which provide services to, or generate revenue for the employer or associated organisation. According to ACAS guidance, general contact between employers and employees should be maintained. This can include general informing and consulting on changes happening within the business as well as HR matters.
What Are the Consequences of Continuing to Work for My Employer While Furloughed?
A breach of the CJRS will affect your furlough payments. In the event that HMRC withholds monies or requires repayment, the employee will have to repay monies received during any period of furlough. However, if the furlough agreement between the employer and the employee does not contain terms stipulating this event, technically, the employee will not have to reimburse the employer, and the employer must repay HMRC.
For more information, check the Government guidance for While You’re On Furlough.