Employees Returning from Furlough: A Guide and Checklist

All you need to know about reinstating employees, communicating new protocols and changes, prioritizing safety, and restructuring your workplace.


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Use this checklist for recalling staff members and preparing your business for the next normal

As state’s allow businesses to reopen, small business owners are are getting ready for employees to return to work. During this uncertain time, one thing is certain — there will be changes in the way you do business and in the way employees execute their roles.

Planning ahead can be helpful in getting employees comfortable with new protocols and changes in the workplace. Providing them with the basics of what they can expect as they return to work can make the transition smoother, easier, and more productive for everyone.

During this uncertain time, one thing is certain — there will be changes in the way you do business and in the way employees execute their roles.

Planning for reinstatement

The first step to reinstating employees post-furlough will be to plan for their return. Here are some questions about your employees to consider:

  • Will their job be essentially the same, or will there be changes to the amount or type of work they will perform?
  • Will you restore their hours/shift to pre-pandemic levels or will you have to make adjustments?
  • If there are changes to the work or hours, do you anticipate they will be permanent or temporary?

Compile as much of this information as possible, with the caveat that economic conditions may require future adjustments.

Next, begin to notify staff members of the conditions for their return to work. Some staff members will be happy to get back to the job. Others may have concerns about the shift in their work or hours. You may need to adjust your reinstatement plans for those staff members who aren’t amenable to any changes — even temporary — that may be required of them.

Read more: Reinstating Pay and Benefits for Laid Off and Furloughed Employees

Notify new protocols

As we return staff members to the workplace, it will be incumbent upon employers to make safety a priority.

As we return staff members to the workplace, it will be incumbent upon employers to make safety a priority. Where most office workers, traditionally, have had limited safety concerns, COVID-19 has made us all aware of and alert to policies and protocols that reduce the risk of infection.

Your new plan may include:

  • Taking employee temperatures before they enter the building
  • Limiting in-person meetings
  • Requiring employees to distance themselves whenever possible from coworkers
  • Closing lunch/break areas

Provide employees with these new policies before they return from furlough — either by email, text, or mail — before they return. They’ll be able to adhere to the new protocols as well as be aware that you’re putting their safety first.

Put it in writing 

Whether you sent a formal letter notifying staff members they were being furloughed or not, you may want to formalize the terms and conditions of their return. A letter that tells staff they are welcome to come back and outlines any changes in their role or hours gives them the opportunity to carefully analyze whether they should/can come back.  Your notification letter should include the potential for change should market conditions shift, but that, currently, you anticipate these will be the new terms for their employment.

Require a response 

Provide a timeline to return to work or to resign their position. You won’t want to wait weeks for them to decide whether or not they will come back, particularly if the terms of their furlough included the company continuing to pay for their healthcare or other benefits. Ask for a reasonable amount of time (possibly a week) for them to notify you whether they accept any anticipated changes and will return to work, or if you need to discuss the terms of their return in more detail.

An example may be a staff member who you ask to return from furlough with greatly cut hours, at least temporarily. If the staffer declines the offer to return, your next step will be to notify them that any furlough-covered benefits can be terminated. You’ll need to issue Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) notifications for any loss of coverage they experience as a result.

Read more: How to Talk to Employees Who Are Reluctant to Return to Work

Be ready to be flexible

Get ready to negotiate. Some staff members may be in the unfortunate position of having to choose to return to work at a loss: their unemployment benefits package, including the additional funds provided by the federal government, may be higher than their normal wages. If that occurs, you may consider bringing them back on a part-time basis, until the federal bonus unemployment insurance ends on July 31, 2020. Some states are ending it on July 25.

Outline all anticipated changes

Detail any changes the employee can expect on their return to work. You’ll want to include changes in hours, obviously, but there may be other changes as well. If their job typically worked with clients face-to-face, notify the staff member there will be new telework options instead. If a worker had a supervisory role in the past, you may need them to work the line during the transition. List out any anticipated changes and notify staff members that, as market conditions shift, additional changes or returns to normal may occur.

Shift changes

As you work to distance employees from one another, you may consider staggering the way they perform their jobs, their hours, or how they navigate the workplace. Shift changes are the most common, and they can be particularly difficult for employees. You’re likely aware that staffers with children, for example, are facing childcare issues during the pandemic. Substantial shift changes can pose another challenge for workers with or without children.

As you work to distance employees from one another, you may consider staggering the way they perform their jobs, their hours, or how they navigate the workplace.

Access to public transportation in many larger areas has become limited due to reduced usage. For some workers, this may mean inaccessibility to get to and from work. For others, childcare options may limit their ability to accommodate a significant shift change. Be ready for some employees who are unable to accept a return-from-furlough offer due to these conditions.

A more gradual return option may be to stagger start and end times less drastically. If the goal is to distance employees in the workplace, look for ways to have some employees come in a few hours earlier or later, or move workstations around as much as possible to spread out the change more evenly.

You may need to come up with creative solutions to maintain safe distances in the workplace — ask staff members for suggestions and ideas on how they can work effectively during the transition. Temporary barriers between cubicles, better ventilation, and, of course, rigorous hygiene standards can help.

Benefits status

If employees were furloughed with full benefits, there will be no need to reinstate them. If benefits of any kind were suspended during the furlough, employees will have the option to reenroll if they let coverage lapse. For staffers who utilized COBRA, notification to your benefits administrator that they are back on staff is usually sufficient. For those whose coverage has lapsed, reinstatement will allow them to rejoin the plan in an open enrollment that should allow changes in coverage, as well.

Regarding other benefits, like accumulated sick and vacation time, make sure to notify employees:

  • Where their PTO was before the furlough
  • What they utilized during their time off
  • When new accumulations will begin if they were suspended during the time off

Finally, remember to bring back workers in a non-discriminatory manner. Assure that you’re bringing back every worker possible without regard to protected status. Remember that during this outbreak you are able to restrict return to work for any employee that has tested positive for COVID-19 under the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For some workers who are unable to access child or dependent care assistance during the pandemic, return to work may be impossible. You will need to accommodate these staff members’ continuation of leave until restrictions on care facilities are lifted. For all other employees, reinstate workers based on need, rather than any permanent or temporary protected status.


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