Budget 2021: ‘Furlough is a lifeline, I hope they extend it’

BBC.- Events planner Chantelle Spindle has seen her career take some unexpected turns during the coronavirus pandemic.

After being furloughed, then made redundant by one company, she landed another job less than a week later with entertainment and event staffing agency RubyLemon.

But since the start of February, she has been put on furlough again.

«It is worrying,» says Chantelle, 26, from Essex. «But the company are confident about how they’re growing right now and building the brand.»

Chantelle’s latest furlough has come as pressure mounts on Chancellor Rishi Sunak to extend the wage subsidy programme when he delivers his Budget on 3 March.

£50bn so far

The furlough scheme has slowed down the number of redundancies, but at present, it is due to finish at the end of April.

Boris Johnson was this week criticised for not confirming whether it would continue as he unveiled his roadmap out of lockdown – something Labour said left people in limbo.

But the prime minister did say «we will not pull the rug out».

Furlough has cost the Treasury almost £50bn so far and Chancellor Rishi Sunak is understandably reluctant to give an open-ended commitment to financing it indefinitely.

But the price of not extending it would be a further big rise in unemployment, which has already reached a rate of 5.1%.

Last week, RubyLemon took a new team photo for the company’s relaunched website. «I was included in it, so that makes me think I’m going back,» says Chantelle.

She works on the entertainment side, with responsibility for hiring musicians and dancers for events, and was working three days a week when her latest furlough began.

She says the scheme has been a lifeline. But while she hopes to be back full-time with the company once the pandemic is under control, she worries about the performers.

Most of the 1,500 artists who work for RubyLemon across the UK are freelancers, who can’t be furloughed and will continue to struggle as they wait for business to restart in June.

«I think once things are eased and go back to normal, everyone will want to party again,» Chantelle tells the BBC.

«It just depends on whether these musicians or entertainers are in the same industry.»

‘Nervous about the future’

Industry and unions alike are prevailing on Mr Sunak to maintain furlough until at least the end of July, with the CBI, the TUC union and the British Chambers of Commerce all arguing for an extension.

Although the number of people still on furlough has fallen considerably from the peak of nearly nine million, those still on the scheme are hoping that it will see them through until the pandemic eases and the economy reopens.

But many began on furlough only to be made redundant – and large numbers of them are still looking for work.

Alison, from West Yorkshire, was furloughed by the hotel group she worked for between March and October. Then it let her go.

The 33-year-old, who was due to give birth to her first child in December, was not entitled to any redundancy money. Her employer also resisted paying her statutory maternity leave at first but relented after conciliation service Acas told her she was entitled to it.

The money only just keeps the household going when combined with her husband’s income and it will run out in April, so she needs to find a new job by then.

«I started looking for jobs in January, a month after having my baby. You wouldn’t normally do that but I know some people have had it worse,» Alison tells the BBC.

She adds: «I would love to find part-time work and spend more time with my son but I will need to work full time to support the household.»

Lockdown brought the hospitality industry to a standstill, and while restrictions on hotels should start to lift in May, things won’t be back to normal for some time.

Alison is open to roles outside her sector but feels pessimistic given the state of the job market: «If I don’t find anything our finances will be put under a lot of stress.»

She wants Mr Sunak to do more support hospitality; she’d also like to see more generous maternity leave and redundancy rules to protect women.

As well as supporting existing jobs, Mr Sunak is being urged in this year’s Budget to do more for those still trying to enter the job market, particularly young people.

There are calls to overhaul the Kickstart programme, which which provides subsidised work placements for young people who have been out of work for at least six months.

Since launch in September, fewer than 2,000 work placements having been started due to Covid restrictions, despite 120,000 roles having been created.

Mr Sunak has also been urged to offer more support for apprenticeships after uptake fell sharply last year.

Oliver Holt, from Blackpool, says he wants to be an apprentice mechanic as working for a garage «would be a dream».

He secure four months’ work experience at a local garage last year, but that came to an end when staff were put on furlough.

Since then the 20-year-old, who has already passed his level 2 in mechanics at college, has not managed to find anyone to take him on, despite countless applications.

‘Super-keen’

He says the pandemic has made apprenticeships hard to come by, while another issue is that he suffers from mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

«An employer might think that I could be a liability, which isn’t the case,» he told the BBC. «I’m super-keen and I have a positive approach.»

In the meantime, he has washed cars to pay for driving lessons. After a post of his went viral on Facebook, well-wishers boosted his efforts by donating more than £300 worth of cleaning products.

«I was fed up of being inside and not doing anything,» he says. «It gave me a better work ethic and a better approach.»

Since August the government has offered businesses £2,000 for each apprentice aged under 25 they take on, and a payment of £1,500 for those older than 25.

But this is due to end on 31 March, and bodies such as The Construction Leadership Council want Mr Sunak to extend it.

The government promised to continue helping people «to find new jobs, acquire new skills or start new businesses» as the country comes out of lockdown.

It also said it would «carefully tailor» the level of job support it gave to individuals «to reflect the changing circumstances as restrictions ease and the economy is gradually reopened».

It said Mr Sunak would give more details in the Budget on 3 March.

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