New evidence from Citizens Advice suggests some of the most vulnerable workers in society are having their health put at risk by their employer not furloughing them, despite being eligible for the government’s support.
It comes as the Chancellor is due to outline plans for the next phase of the Job Retention Scheme, which has been used by 800,000 employers to furlough 6.3 million jobs.
The charity’s frontline advisers are already helping workers in the shielded group, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, who have been denied furlough despite instructions to stay at home and avoid face-to-face contact. Many have been left relying on £95.85 per week from Statutory Sick Pay and any additional benefits they might be entitled to.
In the week after applications for the Job Retention Scheme launched on 20 April, Citizens Advice gave one-to-one employment advice to almost 4,200 workers. An in-depth analysis of a randomised sample of a tenth of these cases showed that over 70% of those who are shielding or are potentially at higher risk from coronavirus had not been furloughed. Those at higher risk include people who are pregnant or have conditions such as diabetes.
Employers are currently allowed to furlough people for any reason arising from the coronavirus pandemic, including to protect employees' health.
Citizens Advice is calling for the most vulnerable workers to have a right to be furloughed if their work would require them to breach public health advice. This should include people in the shielded group or who share a household with someone in the shielded group. These workers should also be able to retain access to the Job Retention Scheme for as long as public health advice requires them not to work.
‘It's just a catch-22. I’m damned if I work and I’m damned if I don’t go to work’
Food shop key worker Colleen, 55, is in the shielded group as she has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. She has been denied furlough and instead put on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Her husband works as a carer and so can’t return home.
She said: “I really wish I never gave my work the [shielding] letter because at least I wouldn't be struggling to get by. But my husband rightly said working would put me at risk. It's just a catch-22. I’m damned if I work and I’m damned if I don’t go to work.
“Being on SSP means I take home over £200 a month less than if I was working. I'm struggling to pay my normal bills and buy things like food. I’ve had to sign up to get food parcels as I just don't have enough money. My friend has dropped me bread and beans to get by.”
Warehouse worker Paul, 55, had a kidney transplant last year and has been told he has to shield. The agency he works for refused to furlough him as they didn’t have enough money, and so put him on SSP instead.
He said: “My wife is diabetic, so she is furloughed from work. We've really had to tighten our belts and literally only buy the bare essentials as there's nothing left for anything else.”
Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“The Job Retention Scheme has helped millions of people, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all remedy for getting them back to work.
“We’ve already seen upsetting cases where vulnerable workers have faced the impossible choice of safeguarding their health or ensuring they have enough to live on, because they have been denied furlough.
“The shielded group, and the people they live with, are likely to have to remain at home for longer than others. These are the people who need the protection of the furlough scheme the most, so it’s essential they’re able to use it.”
Citizens Advice previously set out options for a transitional package of support after the initial measures end. It called for a gradual end to the Job Retention Scheme, which could also include ending it for different sectors at different times, or allowing employers to partly furlough employees.
Coronavirus-related employment cases in the week since the Job Retention Scheme opened
An in-depth analysis of a randomised sample of 10% of the 4,152 cases Citizens Advice saw in the week following the launch of the furlough scheme (20 April), showed:
Over 70% of those who are shielding or are at higher risk from coronavirus, such as those who are pregnant or have diabetes, were not furloughed.
This rose to around 80% when including workers living with someone who is either shielding or at higher risk from coronavirus.
This compares to more than 50% of workers overall who have not been furloughed despite being eligible.
The charity has given one-to-one employment advice to 42,000 people since the lockdown, a 140% increase on the same period last year.