UK workers on the end of furlough: ‘Will it be Amazon, care homes or driving a van?’

Since March 2020, 11.6 million UK workers have been furloughed by their employees as a result of the Covid pandemic, with the government paying up to 80% of their wages in order to keep jobs open.

At the scheme’s peak in May 2020, 8.9 million workers – almost a third of the UK workforce – were being paid to stay at home; by the end of July this year, that number had dropped to 1.6 million.

The impact on individuals has been varied: some have found new interests, new lifestyles and even new jobs while remaining on furlough. Others have grappled with mental health issues, including a loss of identity and feelings of worthlessness. As the scheme winds up, we spoke to five people who have been on furlough since the start of the pandemic.

Nadia

40s, creates content for online publisher, north-west England
I’m in a job that can be done anywhere so when the pandemic hit, I expected to carry on – but at home rather than the office. Instead I was told I was being furloughed – but to continue working as normal. I told them that was fraud. Their response was: do you want us to go under? They said they would make up the extra 20% of my pay. So for me, nothing changed – except the government was paying most of my salary.

I felt irritated and a bit vulnerable. I felt if I didn’t go along with it, I’d be made redundant.

I’m a single parent, so this was it in terms of family income. It’s very easy to tell yourself that it’s not necessary to get involved in the company’s finances.

My main difficulty is not what my company has chosen to do but the cultural perception that people on furlough have had a wonderful lazy 18 months, and it’s time they got back to work.

When it ends at the end of this month, I’m expecting to continue in my job. The company isn’t talking about redundancies. But they want everyone back in the office.

I’ve lost respect for my employers. Now I’d like something in return for keeping my mouth shut about what they’ve done – I’d like them to be flexible about continuing to work from home. But I don’t think that will happen.

John Cooper

45, operations manager for a sports complex, East Sussex
Overall, the experience has been an eye-opener and made me realise that life could be good inside your own four walls and with those closest to you.

I was furloughed in March 2020, but my wife carried on working full-time and we were spending less, so there was never a struggle over money. After a few weeks, I asked my employers’ permission to take another job, which they were OK about as long as the hours didn’t overlap with my normal working hours. I got a job filling shelves at a supermarket, 9pm to 1am for three nights a week. It was a godsend for my mental health. With the 80% salary from my normal job, it meant we were slightly better off in terms of household income.

I also took up golf again after 20 years, and we moved out of town. I play golf four or five times a week, I’ve made new friends and I’ve lost weight. I’m now free of debt for the first time in my life. The pace of life has slowed down, and I’ve realised you don’t have to be chasing things and doing things all the time.

I met my employers last week and they’ve agreed I can go part-time for them and carry on with my supermarket job. I’ll be working 43 hours a week in total, but hours that suit me. Before, I was scared of not doing things – every weekend I was packed and ready to go. Now I take water and a banana and head off to the golf course.

Robert

50s, teaches English as a foreign language, Oxfordshire
I got furloughed immediately and was truly thankful for it, including each time it was extended. Now, as it comes to an end, there’s very little hope of getting my job back any time soon (I teach people who come from abroad to a language school).

My boss says there are no plans to reopen this year but he hasn’t said what will happen to the people who work there. All of us have mortgages, families and mouths to feed. We’ve been left in the dark with no clue as to whether we’ll have jobs or not in two weeks’ time.

I’d be on my arse if I didn’t have savings built up pre-pandemic. My savings have gone down by £300-£400 a month since March 2020. I’ve applied for driving jobs and other roles but as soon as you mention furlough, they probably think ‘forget it’. I’m now expecting to be made redundant, like hundreds of thousands of others.

I’m angry at people like [Tory MP] Andrea Leadsom saying people on furlough are just lazy and enjoying themselves, which just isn’t true of me. I’m also angry when I hear people saying workers on furlough are ripping off the state. I’ve been paying taxes nonstop for over 30 years and I didn’t organise the pandemic.

At least I’ve not lost my home yet, I still have some savings left, and I still have a car I can sell. When the scheme ends and I lose my job, at least I can tell employers I am not on the dreaded furlough. Maybe then I can find another type of work.

There seems to be three jobs available: driving, Amazon and care homes. It’s all badly paid and none of it will be enough to cover mortgage and bills. So, I go from a good £30k-plus job to being faced with a £8.91 per hour job instead. That’s OK for six months but catastrophic when the savings run out.

‘It’s been a mad 18 months but I’ve made the most of being furloughed’ … Charlotte Daniel. Photograph: Sonja Horsman/The Observer

Charlotte Daniel

28, data analyst for villa holiday company, Canterbury
It has been a mixture of emotions at various stages – emptiness, lack of purpose, loneliness, days blending into one another, desire for progression. A year-and-a-half without career development at my age is hard. I love my job and my company so I didn’t want to pursue another career. I did go back to work briefly when I was offered a secondment, but it was a massive shock to the system after not working for so long and ridiculously stressful to be in a new role, working 12 hours a day from home with terrible wifi. So I chose to go back on furlough.

I’m currently on day 405 of learning Spanish online, and I’ve taken up bikini bodybuilding, training five days a week. In May this year, my partner and I launched a business together – a sportswear brand for women. We’ve also managed to buy our first house after two sales fell through due to the pandemic.

It’s been a mad 18 months but I’ve made the most of being furloughed. Now I’m really looking forward to going back to my role next month and seeing my colleagues.

Peter, Manchestere.
Peter, Manchestere. Photograph: Courtesy Peter

Peter

39, events administrator, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester
I’ve been furloughed for a year and a half. Since my job is putting on concerts, I haven’t had anything to do. Thankfully, the college topped up my wages throughout the time.

But my mental health suffered significantly. I was under the constant stress of thinking my job could be discontinued at any moment. Being stuck indoors with lots of uncertainty got me down.

The only saving grace for me was that my first child was born at the beginning of the year. Furlough has allowed me to spend time with him that I would never have had if things were normal. I’ve bonded with him far more than if I’d only seen him at bedtime, and my partner and I have shared childcare. For that, I’ve been incredibly fortunate.

I started full time at my job again this month, mixing working at home and in the office. And we have a pretty full diary of concerts for the autumn. So things are looking up.

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