HR Checklist For Bringing Back Furloughed Employees

By Kate Gettinger, OD June 07, 2020

As many businesses are starting to reopen after being shut down for most of the spring due to the pandemic, many owners and managers are wondering how to efficiently bring back furloughed employees. On top of it all, employees returning to work will likely find a drastically altered working environment and potentially different roles in the practice. So how can you prepare to make this transition as smooth as possible?

Create A Plan

Planning ahead is one of the best ways to outline how employees will effectively return, as well as give employees a chance to familiarize themselves with any proposed changes. As employees return, they will likely come with questions and you can do yourself a favor by anticipating these questions and answering them before there’s any confusion.

Some questions you will need to consider for employees may include the following:

Will there be any new job responsibilities or any general changes to the tasks the employee was performing?

For example, is your optometric technician now going to be responsible for checking all patients’ temperatures before letting them into the practice? 

Is your optician going to need to collect and disinfect all frames that are tried on before returning them to displays?

Are there going to be changes in work hours or what days are worked?

Many offices are opening with limited hours of operation, and employees will want to know what their shifts will be when returning.

Be prepared to let employees know whether you intend any shift changes to be temporary or permanent. 

The more detail you can put into your plan for returning employees, the more smoothly the transition can occur. Try to anticipate any obstacles for returning employees and design strategies to alleviate or remove these complications.

Inform Your Staff

Once you have an outlined plan, you need to contact your employees and inform them of your intent for them to return from furlough. At this point, it is helpful to notify individual staff members of any changes to shift durations or changes in responsibility. Many reopening practices may be operating at reduced hours, or you may simply not have the capacity for full-time staff given the circumstances. 

Some staff may not be comfortable with the proposal to return to work. This may be because they are unsatisfied with reduced hours, or due to fear of illness, or dissatisfaction with other new office protocols. By informing employees upfront about any changes before they start work, you can avoid later headaches. Anyone who does not agree to the terms has the option to leave and seek work elsewhere, or you can try to find compromises when possible.

Additionally, you may find that some of your staff aren’t able to perform the new tasks you assign. Your plan may need to be altered based on your employee’s response, with a shifting of delegated responsibilities in ways that satisfies everyone. 

Create A Timeline And Require An Employee Response

Once you’ve started to notify your staff, you will need to give them the option to either agree to return to work or choose to negotiate their position. If possible, give your employees a set amount of time to return their decision, such as a week. Many employees may need some time to weigh their decision, but you also don’t want to be sitting around for weeks waiting for an employee to make up his or her mind. Give employees a firm timeline and stick to it.

If you are making drastic changes to the employee’s hours and/or responsibilities, you may want to also offer the employee the chance to negotiate the terms of his or her return to work. In these uncertain times, you may need to be flexible in order to accommodate staff.

Keep in mind that employees returning to work after a period of time may need to make arrangements for childcare or other transportation. Due to COVID-19, many childcare facilities are still closed and access to public transportation in many cities is now limited. It may take some time for your employee to make the necessary arrangements to return to work.

Giving your employees an outlined grace period before they are scheduled to return will make the transition smoother and ensure you will actually have staff present when you reopen your doors. 

Consider Staggering Employee Shifts

Due to COVID-19, you may need to take measures to help distance employees from one another and limit one-on-one contact. This may mean you need to make changes in where an employee works, how an employee works, or what hours they work, in order to limit social interaction in the practice. 

When reopening, it may be best to enact a gradual reopening and have employees return in stages. A gradual return can allow you the opportunity to adjust for employees coming in earlier or later, and permit you to figure out the best way to improve the workflow in order to be COVID-19 compliant and still productive.

It can be helpful to encourage employee dialogue on suggested improvements or solutions. Employees may have great ideas for how they can personally work more effectively during this transitional period.

Determine Benefits

Depending on the situation, you may have furloughed some employees without any changes to their benefits. However, many practices may have had to suspend benefits during the furlough period. If this is the case, you will need to offer employees the option to re-enroll in any lapsed or suspended benefits or inform them if coverage will be changed as a result of COVID-19.

When employees are returning, it can be helpful to inform them of their current paid-time-off status. You should outline how much PTO was available before the furlough, how much was used during the furlough, and how much will be available once returning to work. This will help eliminate confusion and potential dispute at a later date if you make the information clear and available before the employee returns.

Bring Staff Back Based On Need

As you bring employees back into the practice, it may be tempting to give favor to those who have seniority or who have protected status. However, in order to ensure the practice operates at its best, you need to bring employees back based on which employees are needed to run the business smoothly. Do not discriminate when reopening, and be sure that all necessary positions are filled first by those who are most qualified.

Be Flexible, Be Knowledgeable

In these uncertain times, it can be stressful to reopen a business. By creating a plan for reopening, you will relieve some anxiety by giving yourself a guideline and a generalized approach that hopes to anticipate any complications. However, it is difficult to plan for every potential outcome.

Allow yourself to be flexible. You will likely be changing the way your practice operates and adjusting the duties and responsibilities of your employees, and so you need to be able to adapt and change as you recognize any areas that can be improved. Be open to communicating with employees and be honest about any policy changes or permanent shift changes. 

Recognize that some employees may choose to not return to work. You will need to be able to adjust and find whether you can redistribute their role to other employees or whether you will need to hire another employee.

Finally, you should consider educating yourself as much as possible about the unique situation posed by the COVID pandemic. There is a slew of information available currently about regulations for reopening, so it is advisable to make sure you know both the national requirements but also any state-specific regulations. Some helpful resources to familiarize yourself with are the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Pandemic Preparedness and the Work Place and the AOA’s COVID-19 guidance for optometric practices.

By taking the time to prepare, you will save yourself a lot of uncertainty and ensure that your transition back into practice will be as smooth as possible.



Kate Gettinger, OD

Dr. Kate Gettinger grew up in upstate Illinois and obtained her Bachelor’s in Biology from Truman State University. She worked throughout her undergraduate career at an optometrist’s office and fell in love with the profession. She received her Doctorate in Optometry from University of Missouri-St. Louis Optometry School and received honors for specialization in low vision, including the William Feinbloom Low Vision Award. Dr. Gettinger enjoys treating and managing dry eye, macular degeneration, glaucoma, and diabetes. Her professional interests include ways to improve healthcare access to at-risk communities and improving public health. Dr. Gettinger routinely contributes to optometry publications and writes both educational and advocacy articles. Currently residing in St. Louis, Dr. Gettinger enjoys spending time outdoors with her dog, trying new foods and dining out at local restaurants, playing trivia, brushing up on her French language skills, and exploring new challenges.

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