What Is A Furlough And What Are Your Rights If You Get Furloughed?

Apr 28, 2020, 7:37 PM | Updated: 8:29 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Over 130,000 Utahns have filed for unemployment since mid-March, when the coronavirus began pummeling the economy. Utah companies have furloughed thousands of workers, but what does that mean exactly, and how is it different from being laid off?

For attorney Lisa Petersen of the law firm, Cohne Kinghorn, the last two months have been extremely busy. She specializes in labor laws.

“My phone has been ringing off the hook with questions about furloughs, questions about layoffs, questions about the CARES act,” she said.

In a Zoom interview, employment attorney Lisa Petersen says many employers will be allowed a furloughed employee access to their health benefits, but it’s not a requirement.

Petersen said the word “furlough” itself is not a technical, legal term. It’s derived from the old Dutch word, “verlof” which translates to “leave of absence.”

“The notion is that you’re going to retain your job subject to recall, but that you are being told to be on leave without pay for a temporary period of time,” Petersen explained.

So if you’re furloughed, you lose your pay but still keep your job. Being laid off means your boss has terminated you: you’re gone, off the payroll.

A big reason companies chose furloughs over layoffs is that they can bring people back on short notice when the economy gets better.

And many companies will let you keep your health benefits, though they’re not required to.

A sign posted on the doors of the Roots store in Park City. Furloughed employees are entitled to unemployment benefits, even as they technically keep their jobs during a furlough.

“Employers that don’t may be required to advise employees of their COBRA rights, so they can take advantage of COBRA benefits,” Petersen added. “And, just canceling someone’s benefits may run afoul of the Affordable Care Act, so employers have to comply with that as well.”

Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES act, furloughed workers do have a right to unemployment benefits.

“So, there’s been an expansion of who can file for unemployment,” said Petersen. “There’s been an expansion of the amount that you are entitled to on a weekly basis.”

Furloughed employees have the right to get a second job, or an entirely new one. But, if they have a contract with their current boss, they should check those rules first – they still apply.

“It may have provisions regarding non-competes. It may have provisions with other limitations,” said Petersen.

Your boss has to be equally aware of what is in your contract — if you have one.

“If there are separation payments, if there are guaranteed salaries, guaranteed bonuses – those sort of things,” she explained.

A furloughed employee cannot do any sort of work for their boss – even taking calls or answering emails. If you do, your boss must pay you for that time if you’re hourly, or an entire day if you’re salaried.

“This seems kind of draconian, but sometimes employers take away laptops, company-issued iPhones or cell phones, so that doesn’t happen,” Petersen said. “People have this impulse, ‘I’ve got to answer the call! I’ve got to answer the email!’ And if that happens, then an employer needs to pay for that time.”

Also, employers cannot discriminate in choosing who gets furloughed. They cannot pick their highest-paid employees, for example, or more senior staffers. There needs to be a legitimate business reason behind who gets sent home.

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What Is A Furlough And What Are Your Rights If You Get Furloughed?