Employee challenges and latest unpicking of furlough by Alastair Scott and Richard Hartley

Employee challenges and latest unpicking of furlough by Alastair Scott and Richard Hartley

Following on from the announcement on Tuesday (23 June) pubs, restaurants and hotels can reopen with a reduced social distancing of “one metre-plus”, we are now on a mission to get everything in place in time for 4 July. Most of us are ahead as the date had been widely anticipated, but there is still a lot to do.

One of the biggest challenges we will face is getting our teams prepared for the new normal. Most have been furloughed and therefore will have had more than three months off work. Some have been prepared for the return and will be excited about it, but others are not. 

Returning to work

A while back we started talking to our teams about the return to work and had a selection of mixed responses. Some are keen, although cautious about how our businesses will operate under new guidelines. Some would like to remain furloughed. Of these there are some genuine requirements (ie childcare and shielding), some worried about returning to the workplace and some who I fear are saying the latter but in truth have gotten used to earning while not working. Some of our overseas team felt the natural pull to be close to loved ones so returned to their countries and have decided to stay there. Of those team members able to return we also need to consider which of them would normally travel to work using public transport – not only for their safety but also for the additional risk it brings into the business for the rest of the team and our customers.

We now have an understanding of our staff availability. We’ve also forecasted our sales based on our best assumptions so it’s time to start to pull our rotas together. We are inclined to use our best team members but need to be fair and also consider what the ideal shift length is for an individual returning to work. We believe a five-hour shift is optimal to get the most out of a team member without overexerting them but sometimes this is not practicable. We would also like to try and keep our teams in operating bubbles to ensure they are consistently working with the same people so if there is a requirement to isolate we don’t lose the whole team. 

We have also had to debate what to do if a team member refuses a shift. Can we insist? Do we remove them from the furlough scheme? These are some of the issues we are starting to have to understand and deal with, and of course we don’t have much time to do it because we need to train and get open. 

Training

We are viewing this as an opportunity to have the best trained team we can. Our teams have been using the furlough period to make sure their online training is up to date. We had already started work on how the offer will vary and what refresher training our teams will require. When we started to break down all the activities that require refresher training, we quickly realised there is a lot of ground to cover to ensure everyone is at the standard we want them to be.

We also need to train the team on all of the measures we have put in place to ensure we have a covid-19 safe environment for our customers and our team. There is a 41-page guide from government we have had to digest and implement those requirements that are applicable to our business. We also plan to learn a lot in the first few days of operating that will no doubt mean we will require tweaks to how we operate. 

Keeping everyone safe and what if…

We are putting the ownership of personal safety on to our staff but making very clear of what our expectations are. They are all required to complete a simple health questionnaire each day they are expected to come to work that covers the key covid-19 symptoms. If anyone cannot come to work we have plans in place to arrange cover.

The worst situation for us would be if any one of our team were to get covid-19. Primarily our thoughts would be with them, but we also have the wider team and our customers to consider. There would be a requirement for all of the team they have been working with to self-isolate (hence we are looking at the operating bubbles) and we would have the unenviable task of contacting the customers that might be infected. This situation also requires us to look at our staffing contingency.

It’s going to be a challenge to say the least, but we have been preparing for it for the past three months and feel as ready as we can be. 

Flexible furlough

From Wednesday (1 July) individuals can return to work, and organisations can claim the furlough grant for hours they would have usually worked but have not. To be eligible they must have previously been furloughed for three consecutive weeks between 1 March and 30 June.  

When understanding an employee’s usual hours you should use contracted hours for anyone that has them in place. If an employee does not have contracted hours (ie zero-hours staff) then you should use their usual hours, which is a 52-week average (prior to the start of furlough) or comparable hours from the same period of time last year, whichever is the higher. If an employee has less than a year’s service then it is their average hours prior to furlough.

As an employer you then pay your staff for the hours they work and claim the grant for any hours that are left from their usual hours. As this is done on an hourly basis you will need to calculate an effective hourly rate for anyone that is not paid hourly (ie salary, shift, etc).

The amount an employee receives for the period of time they are furloughed does not change until the end of October, albeit at a pro-rata level based on how much they work. The amount an employer can claim in July remains at 80% of usual pay (capped at £2,500) plus any associated National Insurance (NI) and pension contributions. In August they can no longer claim for NI and pension, in September this reduces to 70% of usual pay and then in October to 60%.

Training while furloughed

Employees are able to train while furloughed so long as they do not provide a service for or generate income for their organisation. For the period of time they are training they are required to be topped up National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage if their effective hourly pay on furlough is below this. 

This covers all online, refresher and covid-19 training and anything else that does not contravene the government statement. It will also continue through to the end of October, which could be very useful should guidelines change and further training be required.

How to handle the challenges

Flexible furlough and training while on furlough require an amount of detailed record keeping ensuring you pay your staff accurately and can submit an accurate claim. We recommend communicating with your payroll provider regularly and in advance to ensure you know what information they require and when they will require it.

Understanding staff health and availability is critical. You need to know as soon as possible that someone is not able to come to work and have your back-up plan ready to launch. We have enabled health questionnaires through our S4labour app and have also introduced shift swapping functionality for our customers. They are part of a wider portfolio of measures we have put in place to help navigate the challenges. We’ve been impressed with a number of initiatives organisations and suppliers have introduced to help get through the pandemic but most of all how, as an industry, we have worked together. Long may this continue.

Alastair Scott owns Malvern Inns as well as the labour management system – S4labour, while Richard Hartley is chief product officer at S4labour

S4labour is a Propel BeatTheVirus campaign member