Furloughed but not really free to leave

As the downturn is drawn out, employers are 'permitting' their employees to work for no pay.

The summer vacation season is a time of disengaging from the daily news flow and then reengaging once we're back home. And as we reconnect, we have to sort out the significant stories from the blather and froth of unconfirmed reports, stray headlines glimpsed at newsstands, or those oddball crawl lines across the screens of airport TV monitors.

Was that real or was it just The Onion? It's not always easy to tell.

But the stories about British Airways asking its employees to work for nothing turn out to be true.

Once I'd confirmed that, I decided that furlough is likely to be remembered as one of the vocabulary words of the current chapter in our economic history. Men selling apples and pencils were the human face of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Employees on furlough may be their counterparts in the downturn of this first decade of the 21st century.

Furlough, as a noun, has three main meanings. It is a period of time off work, especially for those in the armed services, for whom the civilian term vacation sounds too casual. It is a leave of absence for a prisoner. And elsewhere in the workforce, it is a term for a layoff, usually but not always temporary, of employees because of an economic downturn. The meanings of furlough as a verb correspond to each of the noun meanings.

Furlough comes from a Dutch word meaning "permission." The first syllable is related to the "for" element of so many English words (forgive, forget, forgo) and the second is related to the word leave, in the sense of permission ("by your leave").

Just who is getting furloughed nowadays? Well, there are the above-mentioned British Airways employees. The airline offered, if that's the word, to give them one to four weeks of unpaid leave – with the option, though, of continuing to work, for no pay.

Government workers across the country are being furloughed. And, as The New York Times reports, some employees are finding they are being "granted" unpaid leave – but not actually being allowed to leave.

The managers in government and private business who have come up with ways to trim salaries and hours to avoid layoffs deserve some credit for trying to think creatively. But there's an irony here – a bitter one, indeed: Furloughed employees are being "permitted" to take off work for no pay.

During the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy knew that a blockade was an act of war, and he didn't want that. He was looking for options for dealing with the Soviet missiles that his spy planes had photographed on the island. And so he announced a naval quarantine of Cuba instead. It amounted to pretty much the same thing, but quarantine had connotations of public health rather than warfare.

Today's employers may be doing something similar with this use of furlough. They are making the most of a word with both positive and negative meanings but not a lot of emotional baggage – yet.

We know that employment tends to be a lagging indicator of the economy. Businesses don't like to hire until they feel well out of the woods of a recession. If furloughs continue on well after other indicators point to a rebound, a sour taste will attach to the word furlough. It may not be used again so freely in the next downturn.

That is how the cycle of euphemism works: Once people see through it, another expression is needed.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.