Does a Desire to Remain on Unemployment Make a Worker Less Loyal?

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May 5, 2020
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

There are a lot of people writing and talking about the federal and state financial support available for people affected by the COVID-19 virus. Many of them are much smarter than me. (For example, over at TLNT, check out “CARES Act FAQs: What You Need to Know About Employee Retention Credits and Paycheck Protection Programs.”) And as I’ve mostly been affected second-hand (you know, working from home and not being able to go to my favorite restaurant), I kind of stopped paying attention to a lot of it. There’s so much, and it can quickly become overwhelming.

But my interest was piqued when stories started popping up about how some people don’t want to go back to work because they can make more on unemployment with the federal supplement than on the job. What’s more, after furloughing or laying off employees, some businesses that suddenly found out that they received some of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) grant money now find themselves short of employees who don’t want to return.

This can especially apply to tipped or sales workers. For example, as HR expert Suzanne Lucas points out:

“[S]pa workers earn average tips between 10% and 15%. “That can make up a significant portion of income,” she explains. “In other words, asking employees to come back isn’t bringing them back to their old paycheck but to their old flat rate — which is below their normal income. So, it’s not even a question of making more money on unemployment — they also make less working when the business is closed than they would when it is opened.”

In other words, this isn’t about people being “too lazy” to return to work. Most everyone is being asked to do more than normal — we are caring for our families differently, helping to educate our children, working at different locations or shifts, etc. Assuming, of course, that you haven’t caught the virus.

So when I read Kris Dunn’s article on The HR Capitalist, I expected some helpful tips for employers to support their people during this time. What I did not expect was a call to reward loyalty. 

This has been the battle cry for as long as I can remember. Stay loyal to your employer and they will reward you. But is that really true?

I’ve been through two large recessions during my adult life and did not see any of that loyalty from my employer come to me. The first, after 9/11, was a furlough and then a layoff, during which at least decisions were made swiftly so we could move on. The second, while I remained employed, dragged out and while we all kept our jobs but gave up pay increases and PTO (which never returned). We also saw promised promotions disappear. Where was our reward for loyalty or our strong work ethic? 

In his post, Kris asks what to do if you’re an employer and you have employees who don’t want you to protect jobs because unemployment is richer or employees who have been furloughed but are signaling they don’t want you to bring them back for the same reason.

Kris advocates for empathy above all else, since people may be prioritizing safety over money. However, he adds that:

“[W]hen people who are working full schedules (or you’re paying in full while you try to wait this out) want to get the compensation provided by the federal unemployment benefit — or want to stay out and not return to work if you furloughed them and want to bring them back, they’re telling you what they value most. Money in the pocket during a recession is key. So you can’t blame the people who view the world in that way, right? Right.”

Nonetheless, Kris clarifies:

“[Y]ou can prioritize the people who didn’t feel that way for the rest of your company’s existence…Simply put, the people who never blinked and valued the job over the unemployment compensation are the building blocks of your company moving forward.”

Now, I do think there is an argument to be made to encourage your staff to return. But you are going to need to look internally before bemoaning a lack of loyalty or work ethic for those who would rather stay on unemployment while they can.

The rules for unemployment haven’t changed. Your employees can’t just quit and qualify. How did you treat them when you announced layoffs? Did you treat your employees with respect during that process? How did you treat your employees prior to everything that happened? Were you loyal to them? Did you reward their work ethic?

Do you really understand what your employees are going through right now? Do you know how much that extra $600 a week affects them? Are there ways you can work with them during this time so that they can support you but not lose those extra dollars?

As I mentioned in a Twitter conversation about Kris’ post, “I’m so tired of the take that we need to care about the job more than the $$. If you are only making $30k/year, you need each and every cent to survive.”

Yes, there will be some employees who will want to come back right away, but you shouldn’t dismiss those who are unable to, for whatever reason, as being less loyal. I hope you take the time to talk to your employees, to figure out how to work with them and not pit them against each other for who is most loyal. Most of the time, that bet doesn’t pay off for them.

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.