Main image of article Furloughed Due to COVID-19? Take These Steps.

If you’re one of the scores of workers who have been placed on a mandatory, unpaid leave of absence (known as a furlough) due to the coronavirus pandemic, you may be wondering how you can possibly get your paycheck and your career mojo back. 

To help you get through these difficult times, here are some key things to know about furloughs and the steps you can take to regain control of your career.

Conduct an Impact Analysis and Risk Assessment

To figure out your next career move, you must first understand how your furlough status has impacted your livelihood, long-term job stability, mental health and professional growth. 

“A furlough is a payroll-saving measure,” explained Bruce Bastoky, senior HR consultant and founder of Silicon Valley Human Resources. In theory, furloughed employees will have the opportunity to return to a comparable position at comparable pay once the government-ordered shutdowns end and business returns to normal. 

Under the $2 trillion CARES Act, furloughed employees are eligible to receive state unemployment for up to 39 weeks and an additional $600 per week until July 31. You may also qualify for additional paid sick leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), and you may be able to take a penalty-free withdrawal from your 401(k) to make ends meet.

However, a company can extend the timeframe as needed and you could still be laid off if things don’t turn around. (Note: The WARN act may apply to layoffs affecting 50 or more workers at a single location.)

Being placed on furlough can also impact critical benefits and fancy perks that attracted you to the company in the first place. “It’s important to dig into the details,” noted Christine Mathews, HR consultant, founder & CEO of Christine Mathews Consulting. Unfortunately, some HR teams do a poor job of educating employees, she acknowledged: “The onus is on you to have the conversation.”

For instance, companies aren’t required to continue health coverage or pay your portion of the premium, although many are doing so. If you lose your employer-provided health insurance, you may be eligible for COBRA or a policy under the Affordable Care Act.

Whether employees on leave can continue vesting in company equity, such as stock option grants, and for how long, is often hidden in the fine print of plan documents or agreements, warned Nina Borja, senior HR business partner with Mathews’ firm. HR leaders who haven’t initiated a furlough before may not be familiar with those details.

“Keep your options open,” Mathews advised. 

When companies cut or temporarily suspend discretionary 401(k) matches, transportation allowances and student loan repayment programs, it creates an even playing field with less-impacted employers competing for your services.

Getting Your Career Back on Track

Bastoky suggests he’s never seen a small, struggling company offer severance pay. If your company is in trouble, you’re better off spending your free time looking for another job or earning a certification

“To assess your chances of being reinstated, ask yourself: “’How viable is my company over the long term?”’ he said. He also advises that you keep your finger on the pulse of the company by touching base with your boss via email every week.

The good news is that you can continue collecting unemployment while searching for new employment. You can even acquire new skills and contacts while earning extra cash by working on side projects or contract jobs. The rules regarding how much you can earn while collecting unemployment vary by state, so be sure to check the specifics before you start a side hustle.

We recently published a list of online learning portals that are offering free or low-cost training programs for quarantined workers. Many community colleges are offering tuition support, or you may qualify for a small training grant through your state or industry association.

Your boss may agree to reimburse you for the cost of training or a certification exam once you return to work, as long as your newly acquired skills benefit the company, Bastoky added.

Unfortunately, salaried employees on unpaid leave are not allowed to work from home, respond to emails, access files on the company’s cloud or participate in company-sponsored training classes. Stay connected to the broader tech community by attending tech meetups and user groups that have gone virtual due to the virus. 

The situation may be bad but not totally bleak: Some tech companies are actively hiring. If you get called back by a recruiter or hiring manager after sending in your application, so much the better. After all, it never hurts to explore the market, and it certainly never hurts to have competing offers.

Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center, which aims to provide the tech community with the best, most up-to-date information on the novel coronavirus.