By Arj Singh
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Workers across the country are being forced to take days off during the coronavirus lockdown, with little to do except take their daily exercise, “watch Netflix” or even just carrying on working.
Several have contacted HuffPost UK to say they feel “upset”, “conned” and “frustrated”, describing employers’ decisions to enforce annual leave as “a slap in the face” and “unfair”.
The workers affected all said they were lucky to still be in a job during a crisis which has seen thousands laid off and even more furloughed, and understand employers are in a difficult position.
But few see why they should be forced to take days off when they cannot do anything and the government is advising firms to allow workers to carry over days off into 2021, meaning the impact could be more spread out.
Workers who spoke to HuffPost UK said they were worried about their mental health during long stretches at home with little to do, insisting their jobs gave their days structure and that they would not be able to relax.
One said they were threatened with redundancy or having their wages held back if they did not agree to take annual leave urgently, while another said they will be forced to postpone their honeymoon for more than a year.
All of the employees felt their company bosses could have followed government advice to work through the problems with dialogue, with some complaining their company has always done the “bare minimum” and others warning of uproar if senior management take bonuses this year.
The government can do little about it other than urging employers to talk through the issues with their employees and reminding bosses that they must give workers advance notice of double the amount of time they are forced to take off.
Those affected work across many sectors, including manufacturing, accounting, professional services, education and retail.
One of the most high profile firms – Deloitte – made the decision on Tuesday to force staff to take 60% of their annual leave by the end of August and announced it in an email to employees from chief executive Richard Houston.
The firm also argued the new government legislation was only designed to help key workers unable to take holiday because they are responding to the pandemic, insisting: “We are asking you to take a minimum of holiday by 31 August, not stopping you from taking holiday because of your role in responding to the crisis.”
But one worker, Matt, described it as “upsetting” to be ordered when to take time off, “especially given the stress that everybody is going through at the moment”.
They point out that plenty of employees will have been planning holidays towards the end of the year and will now not be able to take this time off.
Another Deloitte employee, David, said it would hit junior workers who study for exams towards the end of the year and take time off to revise.
His section of the company also cannot take holiday in July, leaving him with “something like 25 days of holiday to take a little over 8 weeks”.
“It might have been fairer to explain to everyone the issues around scheduling and then to offer to defer some leave until 2021 and to ask people to voluntarily move holiday forward,” he said.
“To enforce it out of the blue doesn’t seem fair, or well thought out. it doesn’t feel great.
“And now they’ve deferred employee appraisals and promotions till the new year.
“I imagine if there’s a partner bonus this year, there’ll be a fair amount of unrest.”
David said he had considered using the time off to volunteer for the NHS but “realised that my bosses might not appreciate it”.
“Realistically, assuming we’re all still in lockdown, I’ll probably try to learn a new skill, either programming or a new language,” he said.
Two solid weeks of having nothing to do isn’t particularly good for mental wellbeing
Janet works for a university that is forcing staff to take two weeks off over the Easter holiday.
“I’m really frustrated, as are a lot of people I know, as it just feels like a slap in the face to be made to use annual leave when not only do you not want to as you have things you need to do, but also when you can’t go out and enjoy yourself,” she said.
She said her employers are “justifying it as time to relax” but feels unable to while living in shared accommodation.
“Work has been something that’s keeping me going, it’s giving my day structure,” she said.
“I’m not exactly going to be able to rest. I think it’s really short sighted and assumes everyone lives with their family.
“I’ll be stuck indoors with housemates who wouldn’t be my first choice to spend time with.
“I think I will end up having to work anyway because I have things that I need to do, and I will want to keep myself occupied.”
John, another worker at the university, said: “I get that they don’t want 3,000 staff having an excess of leave that needs to be used up at once, but I think carrying it over is much fairer.
“It’s not really annual leave when we are just sat at home during a pandemic.”
He went on: “It’s definitely going to be a long two weeks
“The way it was announced had a line of ensuring staff are rested and well.
“But I think two solid weeks of having nothing to do isn’t particularly good for mental wellbeing.”
Few of the employers forcing annual leave on staff consulted their employees before imposing the change.
But James, who works at a KFC franchise operated by Welcome Break motorway services, claims he was threatened with potential redundancy or having his wages withheld if he did not agree to use half of his annual leave by mid-April, when the government furlough scheme to pay 80% of workers’ wages kicked in.
He suggested this could be because employers are required by law to give twice the time off in notice before forcing employees to take leave.
“I feel conned out of the holidays as like most of the UK I am just sat at home not doing anything useful,” he said.
Forcing annual leave on employees can have a knock on effect for their families as well.
Scott, who works for a large multinational accounting firm, cannot cancel three weeks of holiday he has booked before the end of June, including a two-week honeymoon which he cannot go on.
His holiday entitlement will be replenished after June 30 but “my wife’s holiday year runs to December, so she wont have enough days left for us to do it later in the year,” he said.
“It would really just leave postponing the honeymoon for a year.”
Asked how we would spend three weeks in lockdown, Scott said: “It will just be watching Netflix (if there is anything left to watch) and my daily allowed walk outside.”
Unions said companies must take advantage of the government’s furlough scheme instead of forcing the burden of the crisis on to workers.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Businesses should not be telling their workers to take holiday.
“Support is available from March 1 through the job retention scheme that unions won from the government to protect workers.
“Unions won’t hesitate to call out employers who are not doing the right thing. And we will support our members in taking action when they break rules on workers’ rights.”
But the Institute of Directors’ Edwin Morgan said employers needed to take drastic measures to keep staff on.
“Coronavirus is putting businesses in an unprecedented situation, and these are the kinds of difficult decisions directors face in keeping the organisation afloat, while considering the position of both furloughed staff and those still working,” he said.
“Part of leading an organisation is keeping your people on board, but that’s no easy task right now given the current circumstances.”
A Deloitte spokesperson said: “Our focus is on supporting our people and clients, protecting jobs and our business. In order to help us overcome some of the challenges ahead we’ve asked all our people to use 60% of this year’s annual leave allowance by 31 August.”
A Welcome Break spokesperson said: “All of our KFC units have been closed since Monday March 23.
“Due to the closure, all the Welcome Break KFC team members have been designated as ‘furloughed workers’ and will continue to receive 80% of their normal pay under the government’s job retention scheme.
“We appreciate this is a very difficult time and the situation is changing by the day so we are doing everything we can to support our team during this crisis.
“We offered a couple of options to our team members, and are assessing these regularly to ensure they receive the best remuneration package during this period.”
A spokesperson for the business, energy and industrial strategy department said: “The government is committed to ensuring workers receive the time off they are owed.
“That is why we introduced new legislation last week so that workers who cannot take holiday due to the coronavirus will be able to carry leave over into the next two years and won’t miss out on their entitlement.
“If an employee feels they have been unfairly treated by their employer, they should contact the ACAS helpline for free and confidential advice on 0300 123 1100.”