Since the coronavirus took off in the U.S. in mid-March, unemployment numbers have risen to rival those of the Great Depression — with more than one in four American workers filing for unemployment benefits in the last few months. Moreover, the economic unpredictability has had a substantial impact on employee well-being across the board.

What can employers do to help their former and furloughed employees? We spoke with some experts to get insights on how employers can support employees who have lost their jobs — and understand the long-term benefits it can bring your business. 

What employers should prioritize — now and in the future

Employers have been faced with difficult decisions about staffing and operations since the initial outbreak. Careers and education expert Nicholas Wyman, CEO of the Institute of Workplace Skills and Innovation, cautions that unless layoffs are part of your long-term strategy, taking a “long-range view” of the situation and keeping employees on your payroll whenever possible is the best insurance for sustainability. 

“In the recession a decade ago, a lot of companies let go of workers — particularly entry-level workers — and basically let go of all their in-house training and development,” Wyman says. “[But] when the economy picked up a couple years later, they were caught short. They didn’t have the skills they needed to do the jobs.”

Wyman suggests that if it’s necessary to decrease your operating hours (and the work can’t be done from home), employers should “double down on workforce skills and training,” and consider incentivizing online education and skill-building for their staff during that downtime.  

“We’ve seen for many years this skills gap where you have a large number of people looking for work, and you’ve also got a large number of unskilled jobs, but the people looking for work don’t have the skills employers need,” Wyman says. “That’s why companies must invest in their own training programs.”

Destigmatize access to mental health coverage

Heather Meade is a principal at Washington Council Ernst and Young, a legislative and regulatory group within EY that guides health care companies, nonprofits, employers and stakeholders through the often-complex federal political and policy process. She says that healthcare is the key concern among furloughed and laid-off American workers. 

Many employers are addressing those worries by offering subsidies, Meade says. In fact, she’s working on an initiative with Congress now to substantially subsidize the cost of COBRA coverage: “If you’re furloughed rather than laid off, it creates a nice path back to employment with the employer — so it’s an easier return to the workforce,” she explains. “They may not have sufficient income to pay their portion of the premiums, and it can be very expensive for them —  even if the employer is paying their share of the cost of coverage.”

Among others, these stressors take a toll on employee well-being. Meade emphasizes the need for employers to prioritize and promote mental health wellness solutions for employees. “Whether you’re furloughed, laid off, being hired — all employees coming back to the workplace are going to have a shared trauma experience that has affected people differently,” she says. 

Meade recommends being clear in your communications, with employees and job candidates alike, about the company’s available mental health coverage. She also highlights the importance of destigmatizing the need to access mental health coverage; this will help employees feel a sense of privacy and psychological safety that allows them to take full advantage of their mental health benefits.  

How can employers support employees who have lost their jobs? 

Employers should, of course, prioritize the needs of their current workforce — but that doesn’t mean they can’t also provide support to employees who have been laid off.

Airbnb has emerged as a prime example of how a company should handle mass layoffs. With a major decline in travel and ongoing uncertainty around when it could pick up, the vacation rental company laid off a quarter of its workforce in early May. To help offset the impact, Airbnb offered its laid-off employees generous severance packages, COBRA healthcare coverage for a full year (in the U.S.) and four months of mental health support services. Airbnb also launched an “alumni talent directory” that allows laid-off employees to upload resumes and work samples, and recruiters from other companies to source talent. They’ve also promised to redeploy a significant number of recruiters to help 1,900 former employees find new jobs. 

While not every employer can do what Airbnb did, even small changes can make a big difference. For example, taking steps to streamline and clarify your hiring process can be extremely powerful. Try indicating on job descriptions that you’re hiring people who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, or include a place in the application where candidates note as much. 

Another way employers can help laid-off workers is to remain open-minded and flexible throughout the recruiting process. Recruiters can demonstrate their understanding that times are tough by excusing employment gaps on a candidate’s resume, for example. Or, rather than evaluating a candidate based on experience alone, try honing in on their strengths — in many cases, candidates with no prior experience in a role will still excel with the right transferable skills. 

If you have no choice but to lay off employees, consider offering them some lifeline benefits to help them manage emotional, social, physical and/or financial stressors. Not only will doing so demonstrate compassion for your employees, but you’ll also help to maintain positive connections that could prove to be beneficial when you return to hiring. 

In fact, 16% of employers frequently rehire some of their laid-off workers, while 36% of companies occasionally rehire former employees. The advantage to this approach? Employers are already familiar with their skillsets. 

Conclusion

Even as the economy slowly rebounds, uncertainty and widespread job insecurity remains. Employers may feel helpless about what they can do to help, but remember: you have the power to be adaptable, adjust your hiring processes and assist laid-off workers to show continued support for your employees, past and present.


Curious about the power of transferable skills? Meet Fallyn, a fashion stylist-turned-tech employee whose employer looked past her resume and at her strengths and abilities instead. Watch her story and others in the exclusive new video series, Unconventional Hire.