In a perfect world, we’d all have steady business year-round. Unfortunately, demand fluctuates for many products and services, which means “peak season” and “slow season” are inevitable realities in many industries. Which, of course, translates into a need for more or less employees on your staff.
The solution for many employers (but as you’ll soon read, not all employers) is to lay off workers when things get slow, and to rehire them when business picks back up. Some people refer to this as a furlough, others call it a lay-off, while others don’t even have a term for it; it’s just what happens in “the off-season.”
Since having seasonal workers is a common practice in landscaping and the green industry as a whole, we asked some advisors in the space to chime in on when and how to talk to employees about seasonality, which we’ll get to soon. But first, let’s get on the same page with some terminology.
What does furlough mean?
SHRM defines furlough as, “A mandatory temporary leave of absence from which the employee is expected to return to work or to be restored from a reduced work schedule.” A layoff, meanwhile, is defined as, “a separation from employment due to a lack of work available.”
Both terms have to do with employees leaving their jobs involuntarily, but the key difference lies in their status as an employee and the expectation of their return to work.
Someone who has been furloughed is still an employee (and therefore still has access to health insurance and other employment-based benefits) and is expected to return to work at some point in the future. Meanwhile, someone who has been laid off is no longer an employee, does not retain access to benefits, and is not expected to return to work for the foreseeable future.
How long can a company furlough an employee?
Employers get to determine the length and terms of a furlough, but remember that it’s intended to be a temporary solution. If you drag it out for too long, you jeopardize employee morale and the health of your company culture. Hourly.io says most employers implement an employee furlough when they expect employees to return to work within a 12-month period or less, which makes furlough the appropriate choice for companies with seasonal workers—assuming they can afford to keep paying insurance premiums and other benefits in the meantime.
Furlough in Landscaping & the Green Industry
David Arnold, of Two Twelve Advisors, says that while seasonal layoffs are not ideal, they are sometimes a reality of the green industry.
“While it is normal for a company or owner to do their best to avoid the situation, profitability of the company should come first. Meaning, if avoiding layoffs will damage the company’s profit, the layoffs should not be avoided. Keeping employees on while damaging the company only weakens the company when their intent is to provide for their employees.”
But Grow The Bench’s Phil Harwood rejects this popular notion that seasonal layoffs are “just part of the business.” He explains:
The phenomenon of people routinely accepting a seasonal layoff and returning to the same employer year after year has been commonplace in both the landscape contracting and the retail garden center segments for many years. When I first encountered this layoff-return-to-work cycle, I thought to myself, "Why would anyone agree to do this?" But then I began to realize that there were a variety of circumstances that made it workable, especially where the relationship between the employer and employees were strong. “Workable” does not mean successful, and, in my estimation, the seasonal layoff model has always been a flawed but seemingly unavoidable part of the landscape industry.
Today, this model no longer is workable in most situations. The likelihood of losing employees is too great and the cost of acquiring replacements is too high. What once sort of worked in some situations no longer should even be considered. Today, the best option is to provide year-round employment, adjust prices accordingly, and make this your new business model. Many companies in our industry have already made this paradigm change, their customers have absorbed the price increase, and there’s no looking back. That’s what I recommend.
How to talk about furloughs with staff
Make sure that you are talking about the seasonality of your business in the interview process, before candidates become employees.
Million Dollar Landscaper’s Scott Molchan says it’s important to be upfront from day one to help prevent future misunderstandings. “Team members can feel blindsided and end up disgruntled if they have to be laid off at the end of the season and weren’t made aware well in advance that that was what was going to happen.”
Additionally, honesty and transparency are always the best approach to potentially messy situations. David Arnold suggests a policy of keeping crew leads and foremans on staff year-round, while hiring crew members and laborers with a clear understanding that layoffs are a possibility. “By keeping this discussion open you are helping the team feel heard and protecting the company’s culture. Doing so keeps the laid off employees in good standing so they will return when the season picks back up.”
You’ll also want to remind seasonal employees (well in advance) when the off-season is approaching. If you’ve done your due-diligence in the hiring phase, this should not be a surprise to them and should be a relatively easy conversation to have.
How to stay in touch with furloughed employees when they’re away
Everyone we spoke to agreed that keeping in contact with furloughed or laid off employees in the off-season is a great tactic for getting them to return in the future. When they feel like part of the team, even from afar, they’re more likely to display loyalty in return.
Scott Molchan recommends touching base on a monthly basis, even if just to say hello and ask how things are going. Meanwhile, John D. Hanson (from Accelerated Revenue, Inc.) gave the following list of reasons to reach out to seasonal workers in the off-season:
- To wish them a happy birthday or upcoming holiday
- To offer to connect them with business owners who you know are hiring in the off-season
- To start communication about peak season scheduling and availability
- To ask what they will do for fun during the off-season, or to follow-up on fun things they had planned
- To ask for ways you can help during the off-season (e.g. references, scholarships, side work, etc.)
- To let them know that they are appreciated and valued in the organization
- To let your best team members know you will match any written offer they are given by another company when the season returns
In addition to the list above, Scott also suggests inviting seasonal team members to attend industry trade shows or training opportunities that might interest them. “We had some of our staff members take English and Spanish classes. We also had some team members take certification classes to become Indiana Accredited Horticulturists or to get certified in hardscapes.”
Perks, incentives, and other benefits to encourage furloughed employees to return
Return-to-work monetary bonuses are commonplace, and another great tactic for retaining seasonal employees. David Arnold suggests offering $300 on the first paycheck back and an additional $300 after 60 days.
In addition to monetary bonuses, Scott Molchan says to think outside the box to offer creative perks for blue-collar workers like gym memberships, home cleaning services, or allowing team members to use your shop to work on their vehicles on evenings or weekends.
As covered in our article, "6 Tips for Retaining Seasonal Employees," getting furloughed or laid off employees to return really boils down to showing your appreciation both when they’re working for you and when they’re not.
Or, take Phil Harwood’s advice to provide year-round employment, adjust prices accordingly, and make that your new business model so you don’t have to worry about retaining seasonal employees at all.