Staff Management

COVID-19: Why Furloughing Staff Was the Right Decision For My Practice

By Christopher Berry, OD

April 29, 2020

When practices were forced to shut down for all but emergency eyecare, the difficult question of what to do with staff arose. In my case, the best decision turned out to be furloughing my employees. Here is why this is the approach I chose, and how I am managing my relationship with employees during this time.

A Decision We Arrived At As the Crisis Progressed
We have 23 employees, including four optometrists. We officially furloughed staff March 28. We now have only a few staff members working limited hours to order contacts, repair glasses when a patient doesn’t have a back-up pair and doing other similar tasks.

Though we have furloughed nearly our entire staff, that was not our initial plan. Our office officially closed for everything but emergency care on March 18, and originally we planned to pay our staff for as long as we could. We have an absolutely terrific and dedicated staff, and the majority of them have been with us for many years. I couldn’t imagine having to lay them off. We paid our staff for their normal hours for the pay period following our closing, even though they had only worked a few days of that pay period. Then the passing of the CARES Act completely changed our thinking.

Part of the CARES Act increased the unemployment pay by $600 per week. That means someone who gets unemployment at this point receives their state unemployment amount and an additional $600 from the federal government.

Let’s use a $16/hour employee in my state of Oregon as an example. Their weekly benefit from the state would be about $415 per week and the federal government is kicking in $600 per week for a total benefit of $1,015 per week. That works out to $25/hour for a 40-hour work week. In fact, in Oregon, (each state will vary somewhat) the breakeven point is $65,000. If an employee makes less than $65,000 per year, they will make more on unemployment for the next few months than they would working.

So, after looking at these numbers, we felt it only made sense to furlough our staff for their benefit as well as the practice. Usually doing everything you can to retain your staff is noble, but these are not normal times.

How We Communicated Our Decision to Employees
We called each staff member to let them know we were furloughing them, so we could address any worries they had and let them know their job was safe and that they would have their same benefits, salary and paid time off when we reopened. We also assured them that our practice is well positioned to weather this crisis.

Our staff was understanding and we didn’t have much push back. There was certainly concern, but we allayed those fears by explaining how this was truly the right thing to do at this time for them and to ensure the survival of the practice.

We Are Still Accessible to Employees to Help with Unemployment Applications
We have been available for phone calls, texts and e-mails concerning staff questions about applying for unemployment. The unemployment process has been a challenge. The unemployment offices in most states are inundated with new unemployment applications, which is delaying unemployment and responses. This can cause a cash crunch for many families, but I know the unemployment offices are working hard to resolve these delays.

We Are Maintaining Our Relationship with Employees
Furloughing continues the employee relationship with the employer even though they aren’t getting paid. It also typically allows them to retain their health insurance. We are continuing to pay staff health insurance premiums.

We have e-mailed our staff to let them know we are thinking of them, wishing them good health, and that we will continue to update them on plans to reopen. We want to continue to address any worries they have and do all we can to retain our fantastic staff. It is unlikely they will seek other employment because they are being compensated well through their unemployment benefits.

Our Goal is to Bring All Employees Back When Reopening
We are determined to bring everyone back at this point. The Paycheck Protection Program loan, which we have received, requires you to bring your employee numbers and pay up to pre-crisis numbers. If some of the staff decided not to return, we would need to hire new employees to replace them.

We look forward to picking up where we left off with our staff and continuing to build the practice together.

 

Christopher Berry, OD, is the owner of Albany EyeCare in Albany, Ore. To contact him: cjberryod@yahoo.com 

 

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