Q: I hope to re-open my business over the summer, based on CDC recommendations and Governor Baker’s guidance. In March, I furloughed most of my employees. I am concerned that one employee, who is part-time, will not want to return. She may be earning more in unemployment compensation than she was making (and will make) for my company. What can I do?
A: I think all of us are looking forward to the gradual and safe return to work. It may not look exactly like “normal” for a while though.
Assuming it is safe to return to your workplace, there may be some who are fearful of returning. There also may be some who do not want to return, because of the additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits. Even if an employee receives partial unemployment benefits, the employee (or former employee in some cases), the recipient would also receive the additional $600 per week, which is part of the CARES Act, a federal stimulus program. While unemployment compensation is taxable, this may be more income than they were earning as a part-time employee. There are some, like me, who were surprised that these additional funds were not pro-rated.
The honest answer is that there is little you, as the employer, can do. You can set the expectation and work with the employee and ask the employee to return. You can offer some reasonable options for the employee, to minimize workplace safety concerns. Options like working off-hours, ensuring social distancing, providing hand sanitizer and similar workplace precautions could be offered. But it would be difficult to force the employee to return. The Department of Unemployment Compensation is a bit more flexible right now than they have been in the past. A claimant does not have to demonstrate that they are actively looking for work, nor does the claimant have to have earnings over the past four quarters (which is a requirement in “normal” times).
You will, however, be able to recruit a new employee for this role. You will likely have a large pool of talented candidates, from which to choose. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts hovered just under 3% in January of 2020. Economists are forecasting double digits this summer.
Though you didn’t ask, engage with your employees now. Reach out to them and make sure that they are OK, both physically and emotionally. It is a trying time for many. Our personal and professional connections matter.