While both furloughs and layoffs have the same short-term financial effect—i.e., the immediate loss of your paycheck—they can lead to very different long-term outcomes.
If you’ve recently lost your job and you’re wondering about the difference between a furlough and a layoff, here’s what you need to know.
What Does It Mean to Be Furloughed?
A furlough is a mandatory, temporary unpaid leave, reduction in hours, or pay cut. Employers use furloughs to trim payrolls in response to a business slowdown or an economic downturn. Both private employers and public agencies may resort to furloughs to save costs.
Unlike a layoff, furloughs are intended to be for a limited time. Employees stay on the organization’s books and may return to work after the furlough is over.
Still, workers are free to look for a new job during a furlough, and companies may also decide to cut positions permanently via a layoff if economic conditions don’t improve.
During a furlough, employers may place all employees on unpaid leave, rotate workers through furlough, or furlough only those workers in non-essential functions. Depending on the status of the workers—whether they are exempt or non-exempt—employers might ask them to take one unpaid day off per week, or they may furlough employees for several weeks or months at a time.
The Difference Between a Furlough and a Layoff
The primary difference between a layoff and a furlough is that while a furlough is intended to be temporary, a layoff is permanent. There is no guarantee that you’ll get your job back.
Typically, companies resort to layoffs when they need to cut expenditures quickly. Layoffs save employers expenses such as health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, and other costs that may be difficult to meet during a recession.
However, because laid-off workers often won’t return to their jobs after an economic crisis has passed, a layoff can be a more costly option in the long term if employers need to staff up again. Factoring in the expense of recruiting and training, it can cost one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary to replace an employee.
Furloughed Workers: Exempt vs. Non-Exempt Status
Non-exempt employees are those who are entitled to overtime pay through the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), while exempt employees are not. The federal government provides several tests to determine whether workers are entitled to overtime pay, including job duties and a salary threshold.
Workers who are not exempt from FLSA standards are entitled to time-and-a-half overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a workweek. As of January 1, 2020, the salary threshold is $684 per week.
Guidelines for Hourly Workers
Generally speaking, non-exempt workers are hourly employees in non-managerial roles. Your status as an exempt or non-exempt worker matters when it comes to furloughs because it can determine the way in which your employer can place you on unpaid leave.
Employers can furlough hourly employees by reducing their schedules, for example, from 36 hours to 30 hours per week. Or they may place workers on a “zero-hour” schedule in which employees stay on the company payroll but don’t come into work and don’t draw pay. They may not, however, reduce an hourly worker’s pay to less than the minimum wage.
Guidelines for Salaried Workers
Different rules apply to exempt workers. For the most part, companies can reduce salaried workers’ pay as long as that pay is consistent and in keeping with a plan to preserve the company’s long-term prospects. However, reductions in pay may trigger the loss of exempt status for some workers, which might make those workers eligible for overtime pay.
Salaried workers cannot perform any work for their employer during a no-work furlough—not even checking email. If you’re a salaried worker and you’re required to work during a furlough, your employer may be required to pay you the equivalent of a full day’s work.
Next Steps If You’ve Been Furloughed
Whether you’re an hourly or salaried employee, you have rights if you have been furloughed. For example, you may be entitled to advance notice of a furlough or layoff via The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act. According to this protective measure, a company that employs more than 100 full-time workers (or part-time workers who work more than 4,000 hours a week in aggregate) must provide 60 days’ notice before a layoff, plant closure, or furlough.
You may also be entitled to unemployment compensation during a furlough. Workers who are furloughed, laid off, or unemployed through no fault of their own are eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
To learn more, contact your state unemployment insurance department. The U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop resource has a list of every department.
Often, employers will continue your healthcare coverage during a temporary leave such as a furlough. However, you may be required to pay your employee contribution, which may be challenging when your pay is on pause. You may also be eligible for COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act) coverage if your furlough leads to a loss of coverage—but again, that can be costly.
You may also qualify for a special enrollment period through the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Depending on your income, you may be eligible for subsidized insurance.
Next Steps If You’ve Been Laid Off
There are no federal laws requiring employers to provide workers with severance pay after a layoff. However, many companies choose to provide severance anyway as a gesture of goodwill and an investment in their employer brand.
If you’re laid off through no fault of your own, you are likely entitled to unemployment compensation. Depending on your state, you may also be eligible for expanded unemployment benefits, which may include an additional $600 per week and extended eligibility for 13 weeks after standard benefits run out.
If you worked for a company with 20 or more employees, you are eligible to continue your employer-sponsored healthcare coverage under COBRA. However, you will be required to pay the full cost of the monthly premium, which may be several times the cost of your contribution as an employee.
You may find cheaper options under the Affordable Care Act and qualify for tax credits based on your income.
Depending on your financial situation, you may also be eligible for Medicaid. Meanwhile, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) provides healthcare coverage for children, and in some states, for pregnant women as well.
How to Move Forward After a Furlough or a Layoff
If you’ve been furloughed or laid off, it’s normal to feel blindsided even if you had a feeling that you might lose your job. During a time of mass unemployment, it might be difficult to feel optimistic about your chances of landing a new position. But take heart: even during an economic crisis, it is possible to find a job.
The first step is to get information about where you stand. Talk to the human resources department at your former employer and find out as much as possible about severance, unemployment, employee benefits, unpaid vacation and sick time, and so on.
Then, apply for unemployment benefits. This is a good idea even if the employer claims you’re not eligible. You might be surprised to discover that you qualify.
Keep in mind that if you are called back to work from a furlough by your employer, you will most likely lose unemployment benefits if you don’t return to work when the business reopens.
Assess your finances and make a financial plan for the short and long term so you’ll be prepared if your unemployment benefits run out before you secure another full-time job.
Finally, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Conduct your job search through multiple avenues—job search sites, social media, and networking contacts. You never know where you’ll find your next job.