Business Insights   

Communicating with your furloughed workers during COVID-19


If you have made the tough decision to temporarily furlough your workers during the COVID-19 crisis, you may also need to revamp your messaging strategy. How are you sharing coronavirus-related news with employees, and how will you communicate your future plan for your business? Careful communications are essential from the moment you recognize the need to make these difficult decisions about keeping your company afloat to when you will hopefully be resuming normal operations.

Headshot of Bob Patience.

Bob Patience
VP, Head of New York Life Business Solutions

Furloughing employees isn't an easy decision, but transparency can help them manage the crisis and help you retain these employees and keep their trust.

Engaging with Your Furloughed Workers

If you've opted to furlough rather than lay off staff, it's important to keep them engaged even when they're not working. Here are best practices:

• Be upfront with them: Depending on the size of your company and its ability to function during the pandemic, you may be able to reduce your workforce rather than close your business entirely. If you can develop an “on-and-off" plan with workers furloughed and working at specific intervals, that may keep your employees feeling engaged with the company and less anxious that they are completely out of work. Share as much as you can about your numbers and your plan to reopen when possible. If you furloughed only some employees, it's best to explain the decisions factually to avoid the perception of some employees being treated unfairly.1

• Explain what benefits are available: Stay updated on changing rules and options from your local, state and federal government for unemployment compensation for furloughed workers. Make sure they understand the option of using vacation or paid time off and let them know about their health insurance and other benefits. The federal government's centralized COVID-19 site may offer some valuable information.2

• Provide resources for your employees: When you see updates on local guidelines about social distancing, free options for activities that may help people relieve stress, or information on funds that may be available, share those  resources with your workers. It can be difficult to keep up with all the various programs in place, and you can show you empathize with your employees by sharing what you've found. An occasional, voluntary virtual happy hour can offer a way for coworkers to get together remotely and pool information.2

• Be clear that they can't work while furloughed but can reach you: Whether you have in place an ongoing furlough or an on-and-off version, it's essential to explain that employees cannot answer emails or calls with customers or complete other tasks during the furlough. If they do, you may be responsible for paying them. Some companies confiscate company-paid cellphones and block access to company emails to ensure that employees can't work during their furlough. At the same time, let your staff know they can reach out to you with questions, concerns, and updates on the business.3

• Provide personalized emotional support: You've worked hard to create a strong, supportive team of coworkers. Keep them feeling like a team with frequent company-wide outreach and individualized attention where possible. Depending on the size of your company and whether any of your workers remain on staff, you may want to designate one or two people to help check on  furloughed employees and to set expectations for the future.2

Staying Transparent is Key

The pandemic has upended life and work for everyone. Handling the situation with transparency and compassion can help you gather your employees close even when you can't pay them and help pave the way for future success.


About the author

Bob Patience

Bob Patience is Vice President of Business Solutions at New York Life.  Bob oversees our employee benefits business, including our payroll deducted individual life products and our group life and disability offerings.  In Bob’s four years with New York Life, we launched our group offerings, re-priced and redesigned our individual products and re-positioned the business to support our agents by focusing on the financial needs of small businesses, their owners and their employees.  In addition to his oversight of Business Solutions, Bob is also leading a number of work streams related to NYL’s pending acquisition of Cigna Group Insurance.  Before coming to New York Life, Bob spent 30 years with Prudential, where he held a variety of product, underwriting, segment head, and technology leadership positions.  Immediately before coming to NY Life, he was the P&L owner of Prudential’s $3 billion block of group life and voluntary benefits business.  Bob has a BA from Colby College in Maine and a Masters in Business Administration from New Jersey’s Montclair State University.

Sources:

1Vicky McKeever, "The dos and don'ts of talking to employees virtually about furloughs and layoffs," CNBC, April 6, 2020
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/06/how-to-talk-to-employees-virtually-about-furloughs-and-layoffs.html

2Nicole Fallon, Struggling to Balance the Budget? Here's How to Manage Staff Concerns the Right Way" US Chamber of Commerce, March 27, 2020 https://www.uschamber.com/co/run/human-resources/handling-coronavirus-layoffs

3Susan M. Heathfield, "What Is an Employee Furlough, and Why Do Employers Use Them?", The Balance, March 17, 2020
https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-is-employee-furlough-1918132

This material is provided for informational purposes only. The information is current as of the date of publication and is subject to change without notice. New York Life Insurance Company, its agents and employees may not provide legal, tax or accounting advice. Individuals should consult their own professional advisors before implementing any planning strategies. © 2020 New York Life Insurance Company. All rights reserved.