Changing Jobs

What to expect if your temporary furlough becomes permanent

Written by Eric Titner

There’s no doubt that we’re all currently living through a challenging moment with little precedent. Simply put, the coronavirus pandemic and its resulting impact have sent seismic shockwaves through every facet of society—and the work world has felt the full brunt of its impact since the beginning.

As a result, companies across all sectors and industries, from single-person operations to global corporate behemoths and everything in between, have been rocked by a range of economic, health, social, and cultural forces from all sides that is forcing nothing less than a widescale reimagining of how business gets done at all levels.

While some changes may turn out to be positive in the long run—existing business will discover ways to be more efficient than ever before and new innovative businesses will invariably spring up in the aftermath of the pandemic—it’s impossible to avoid the hard reality that millions of workers are currently facing. Layoffs and furloughs abound, and the work world continues to wade through a period of extreme volatility and uncertainty.

Those who have faced the unfortunate reality of being laid off from their jobs have somewhat of a clearer path forward. They know that their previous relationship with their former employers has permanently ended and they’re now tasked with forging ahead toward the next steps in their career journeys—whether that entails pursuing new jobs, starting new businesses, or something completely unexpected and different.

But if you’ve been furloughed or think you might be soon, you have a murkier path in front of you.

In basic terms, a furlough is broadly defined as a temporary employment leave, often due to economic hardship on the part of one’s employer. The timeframe of a furlough can vary widely, from a short and carefully predetermined term to a longer and less clear window for return, which can really put employees in an uncomfortable and anxiety-filled limbo between employment and unemployment. Furthermore, the conditions of a furlough can vary as well—things like benefits and insurance can be impacted based on the terms decided upon by businesses initiating the furlough process.  

Beyond these difficult truths regarding furloughs, there’s an even more unfortunate reality involved—many employees who get furloughed, particularly at a time with such extreme uncertainty as a global pandemic, will not be given the opportunity to return to their jobs. Many companies who temporarily furloughed employees in the hopes that conditions might improve will not have such luck, and many employees will eventually have to face the fact that they’re not coming back to work.

Although in the face of the pandemic it’s trickier than ever before to make accurate predictions regarding broad trends and directions for the future of the labor market, currently available data and statistical forecasting models paint a particularly grim picture. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 15 million American workers have been placed on furlough, a number that likely underestimates the full number of people who have been displaced from their jobs during the pandemic.

Although a furlough can indeed be a temporary situation, the lack of certainty can be stressful—and you certainly don’t want to be blindsided if the furlough turns into a permanent layoff. The University of Chicago recently released a report that projects that more than 40% of gross staffing reductions that were made during the pandemic will be permanent, which may mean that it’s a good idea to think ahead, know what to expect, and plan accordingly in the event that your temporary furlough becomes permanent.

A small bright spot when it comes to being furloughed is that thanks to the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act, depending on the size and structure of the company you work for and your location you may be entitled to some helpful advance notice if it turns out that it might become permanent. Companies with more than 100 full-time employees who fall under this umbrella may be required to provide affected employees with 60 days advance notice of an impending large layoff. These employers are also required to give employees advance notice if they anticipate that their planned furlough period will last longer than six months.

Of course this doesn’t exactly make the situation easy, but a helpful heads up can enable you to effectively prepare for what’s next—including a possible new job. For more information on federal guidelines for your state, visit the Department of Labor’s website and connect to your state’s labor office.

If your temporary furlough becomes permanent, it may leave you with lingering questions regarding final compensation, whether or not you’re entitled to any additional vacation or bonus pay, and what this means for your insurance coverage and any additional benefits you may have retained during your furlough period.

Your company’s HR department should be able to answer all of your questions in detail based on your specific situation (including important questions regarding severance, COBRA for extended insurance coverage, etc.), but the bottom line is that the end of a furlough period and transition to a layoff will typically include the usual termination of employer support, benefits, and resources (but it also means that you’ll be eligible for the full spectrum of unemployment benefits offered in your state). That said, you may be able to negotiate with your soon-to-be-former employer to reach some arrangement for an extension of benefits, depending on your situation (and theirs). 

If you happen to have had a union-supported position, you may have certain protections built into your employment contract based on collective bargaining agreements reached between your union and employer—these might entitle you to helpful benefits when it comes to a furlough that eventually turns into a layoff. Your union rep is a great resource for helping you navigate this situation, if you eventually find yourself here.

Dealing with being furloughed from your job is never easy and having it transition to permanent unemployment only compounds the challenges you face. But knowing what to expect should this happen to you can help you effectively prepare for what comes next.

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About the author

Eric Titner

Eric is a NYC-based editor and writer, with years of experience in career-focused content development across a wide range of industries.

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