Charteris’s Furlough Stance

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At the beginning of March many of us started to feel a more heightened sense of unease. Covid-19 was indeed present in our communities, but we remained a ‘glass-half-full’ nation.  I myself had water cooler conversations with positive (yet nervous) colleagues downplaying the impact of the virus; “I doubt it’ll be as bad as it is in other countries”, “We’ll probably have to work at home for a few days to let it blow over”.  

Today, I’m thankful to be typing this from my office desk after a tentative return to our workplace, albeit with a very different landscape and lay out (the water cooler convo’s are a thing of the past!). But, it’s safe to say – over 80 days into this crisis, that our original, ever-so-British optimism was sadly misplaced.

However you spin it, it’s clear that Covid-19 has drastically affected every person, industry, sector and business in the UK.  Some (hand cream, Perspex, and thermometer manufacturers for example) – have thrived beyond their prescribed limitations.  Others have been left with little idea, clarity or direction as to how they’ll start to rebuild their once hard-earned empire and status.  But we’re told the curve has crowned – the ease of restriction is advancing, and despite the Government’s efforts to guide us, we must each find our own way back to some semblance of “normality”.

As we cautiously rehabilitate ourselves to what were once every day, autonomous practices we should take the time to reflect on how the world around us has reacted to the pandemic.  Many businesses have brought their reputation into the firing line, the stark reality of a preference for profit over people has been recognized – and it has not been appreciated.  But why dwell on the negative when there have been so many proactive, inspired business adaptations that have helped safeguard and protect employees and the public.  Those employers who saw past the solitary worker to the grandparents and vulnerable loved ones they’re likely to be in contact with, the employers who instantly implemented costly safety measures at the slightest hint that their employees may be in danger, and most importantly those who made difficult business decisions driven by an understanding and empathy for the fears and trepidation of their loyal employee base.  We salute you.

Our industry is – and always has been – unique.  The nature of business for our employees (who are also our customers) is temporary in contract duration and assignment definition.  The way in which our people work, does not fit the regular mould in the UK.  

We’re proud accommodate the eclectic specialists, the independently minded, those who have chosen to refrain from wearing the concrete boots of a singular continuous job descriptor for any prolonged duration.  You won’t recognize them, but contractors are everywhere within business, project management, construction, healthcare, energy, IT, entertainment (the list goes on).  The way that they have chosen to work has plenty of benefits, freedom of assignment, choice, variation and a slightly more cavalier perspective to their work.  But they also accept that many “normal” aspects of working life may not apply to them. Holiday rights can be confusing, pay rates can fluctuate per assignment and some benefits received by “regular” employees may not be available to them.

So, when the Government’s furlough response to Covid-19 was implemented, many temporary contractors found themselves in dark, unknown waters.  If their assignment was to pause due to the virus then the end client was not eligible to process furlough on their behalf. Furlough is down to the employer, for many this is their chosen umbrella company.

Our response has been a clear and unwavering process; open support lines to our entire contractor base, identify those who have been affected by businesses closing temporarily, work with Government guidelines to provide furlough payments in full. Simple. Our contractors are our valued customers, we know how hard they work and believe that they should be provided with the same level of protection as any other employee.

Furlough is a nationwide support system for employed individuals earning PAYE, why would the temporary nature of contracting make our employees any different? Well, it doesn’t. They are PAYE earners and do not have access to any other furlough/compensation system.

Why then, are we being contacted by contractors stating that their umbrella company is not paying via the scheme? One answer may be that the umbrella company itself may have to forfeit some or all of its regular processing fee for that particular contractor. This is understandably a hard pill to swallow, your weekly or monthly revenue generated from that individual is suspended, all while you’re still providing administrative support. We’re not here to debate the thought processes of other businesses – regardless of how short sighted they may be, but the lack of vision by some of these umbrella companies is set to cost them a lot more than weekly or monthly fees.

The workplace is bouncing back gradually, contractors will pick up new assignments in the very near future and umbrellas will begin processing regular timesheets once again. Or will they? If my umbrella company had refused to pay me through the legitimate, government backed support system in a time of global crisis – why should I now support them with my business? Why is it ok to utilize their services on their terms only? When life is easy for them? What about when life and income was tough for me? Where was my umbrella company then? The damage has been done, a lot of umbrella companies chose to procrastinate, or simply not recognize their responsibilities as an employer.

We’ll always stand up for the rights of our contractor base, sometimes that may mean adaptation, other times it may mean we’re placed in a loss-leader position for a while. But our contractors chose to remain dedicated to our services when the world was in its previous, stable state – we chose to do the right thing, and remain dedicated to them when things became rocky. Why? Because it was our duty to do so, and the right thing to do.

We’re easing into a new state of economic balance, will all of our contractors stay with us as things develop? Maybe not, we work in a fluid industry. But we can rest at night, knowing that we did everything we possibly could to ensure that our valued employees’ rights were supported during their time of need.

Were you a contractor during the pandemic? Did your umbrella step up to support you? If not, we’d love to chat with you about how we may provide a more comprehensive, contractor-focused service in the near future.

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