Access Now: AORN COVID-19 Clinical Support

Archive May 2020 XXI, No. 5

Staffing: Should You Furlough or Layoff Staff?

There are several factors to consider when faced with the difficult decision.

Raleigh Seay, PhD


TEMPORARY FIX The COVID-19 crisis has forced facilities to figure out how to keep staff on the payroll without revenue-producing surgeries to perform.

Letting valuable members of your staff go has to be the worst part of your job. After all, you entered health care because you have a calling for helping others and no doubt love working alongside other dedicated professionals who share your passion. But with many outpatient facilities currently performing only emergent surgeries due to the COVID-19 outbreak, surgery facility leaders across the country are being forced to decide between furloughing staff members and hoping business returns to some semblance of a pre-pandemic volume in a reasonable amount of time or recognizing the need for permanent layoffs to save their centers. Here are a few factors to consider if you find yourself faced with that difficult decision.

Opting for furloughs

Furlough is just another name for a temporary layoff. It sounds better to the worker being furloughed — it’s one of the small ways you can soften a blow that’s going to sting regardless of how it’s presented. Furloughs are used when employers have a reasonable expectation of bringing temporarily laid off individuals back to work within a short period of time. The key phrase here is “within a short period of time.” Granted, you can define the duration of a furlough any number of ways, but I tend to think of it as a period between two and six weeks. If you think your ORs will be back online within that timeframe and want staff to be ready when surgeries begin again, a furlough is likely the way to go.

Of course, you must make smart decisions when furloughing staff. Whenever you make a layoff decision — temporary or permanent — staff must be selected for job-related reasons, which must be documented. Whether you furlough the entire staff or only select employees during the current outbreak, the same principles apply. You must still document that job-related reasons (skillset and length of service, for example) were why you selected employees for furlough.

When furloughing employees, set a date on which you expect the furlough to end. But do so in a manner that leaves some wiggle room if the situation changes. Note, for example, “We are anticipating a return to full operations on July 10, but will reevaluate the situation as we get closer to that date.” Next, decide what, if anything, you want to do financially for the furloughed employees. Here are two common accommodations I’ve seen employers make:

  • Pay healthcare premiums. If the furlough is expected to last a month or two, which is hopefully the situation we’re in now, covering the cost of health insurance provides employees with tremendous peace of mind. Keep in mind that healthcare premiums are typically paid on a monthly basis and provide coverage over a 30-day period. You might have to pay only a few months of premiums before your ORs are back up and running.
  • Offer monetary compensation. You aren’t required to pay furloughed workers but, because many people live paycheck to paycheck, I’ve seen quite a few organizations provide some sort of regular payments to furloughed staff in the form of a flat amount or percentage of their regular salaries. For example, you can consider paying 60% of two pay periods.

Your determination on how to handle furloughed employees must be based on what makes the most sense for them and your center. Just know they’ll appreciate anything you can do to make the time they spend away as financially and mentally comfortable as possible.

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