Employers criticised for keeping coronavirus support money

Greencore, John Lewis Partnership and WH Smith have joined a list of companies facing criticism for reaping financial reward during the pandemic, yet not repaying money secured from the government for either furlough or business relief.

A major supermarket supplier, Greencore claimed £30 million in furlough money across 2020 and 2021.

To date, none of the money has been repaid to the government, yet its chief financial officer received €343,000 (£286,000) in share-based bonuses for 2021.

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Likewise, The Guardian also reported WH Smith claimed £40 million in business rates relief and £11 million in furlough schemes in the year to September 2021. 

Earlier this month it faced a shareholder rebellion when over half of investors opted not to back a £550,000 bonus payment for its CEO.

Employers run the risk of eroding employee trust with such behaviour.

Speaking to HR magazine Clare Spiers, an HR consultant and founder of People Boost, said: "This is such an emotive topic and businesses would do well to think about the impact that these kinds of decisions have on their employees and their culture.

"At the very least transparency about making a decision not to return government funds and what this means for employees – avoiding a restructure for example – would go a long way to avoiding resentment and appearing tone deaf to public sentiment."

John Lewis Partnership reportedly put at least £85 million of its government-backed financial relief towards supporting the Waitrose supermarket chain which, unlike John Lewis stores, was able to stay open for the duration of the pandemic.

Though the Partnership didn’t offer any bonuses or dividends during the pandemic, it has said it won’t be returning the money as it helped keep the business afloat.

Employers have no obligation to pay back money claimed through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) provided it was necessary to keep the business running and protect jobs.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) however has started encouraging businesses to pay back CJRS if employers claimed too much money as part of its efforts to clamp down on furlough fraud.

It also allows businesses to make a voluntary repayment if they don’t want or need the grant to pay employee wages, tax and National Insurance and pension contributions.

Towards the end of 2020 businesses, including Ikea and The Spectator, started voluntarily paying the money back as a show of goodwill.