Furloughed or Fired? Your Rights As An Employee

A Michigan labor lawyer helps define the term “furlough” and provides advice for employees who are slowly starting to return to the workplace.

More than 40 million people — roughly one out of every four American workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses nationwide to close to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“People are going from ‘furlough’ to being told they’re not going back. We’re getting the reductions in force, coming down now.” — Marla Linderman, employment lawyer

Even as the state starts to reopen, 58,000 Michiganders filed new unemployment claims last week.

This unprecedented economic upheaval has left workers with a lot of questions about what it means to be furloughed, what rights they have when they’re terminated and what happens next for those who find themselves suddenly out of work.

Listen: Michigan labor lawyer provides advice about employment rights.

Defining Furlough

The word “furlough” was once used mainly in reference to periods of time off for active military members.

Now, the definition of the word “furlough” seems to be evolving, according to Marla Linderman, a labor, employment and business attorney based in Ann Arbor.

“Employers are terrified that they’re going to lose their business, and employees are terrified they’re going to lose their jobs.”

“I think people have a hard time telling people they no longer have a job, so we keep changing our employment vernacular because of that,” says Linderman.

Linderman believes that in the current economic climate, the word “furlough” is being used to denote that an employee is being laid off and, while the employer may hope the layoff is temporary, they cannot guarantee they will reinstate the employee.

“I think they’re hoping; they want this word to be hopeful,” says Linderman. “And we’re going to find out soon if it was hopeful or if it was just trying to be nice.”

Ultimately, employees are at the mercy of employers since Michigan is an at-will state which essentially means state employers can fire employees for almost any reason at any time, with a few exceptions.

Industries Forever Changed by COVID-19

According to a recent study from the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago, up to 40% of the layoffs people expect to be temporary may actually be more permanent. Some of the industries that may be particularly hard-hit include the medical, restaurant and manufacturing industries.

“People are going from ‘furlough’ to being told they’re not going back,” says Linderman. “We’re getting the reductions in force, coming down now.”

As businesses slowly start to reopen and employees return to work, it is more important than ever that employers and employees work together to protect their livelihoods. The best way to do that, according to Linderman, is ensuring open communication between employers and employees.

“Employers, please talk to your employees. Employees, please talk to your employers. And don’t do it out of anger; everyone has a side here,” Linderman says. “Employers are terrified that they’re going to lose their business, and employees are terrified they’re going to lose their jobs.”

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.
  • Meta Stange
    Meta Stange is the Digital Content and Engagement Manager for 101.9 WDET, overseeing the station's digital editorial content. She enjoys reading, making bad jokes, and hanging out with her dog, Salmon.