What Do All These Coronavirus Terms Mean?

What’s the difference between a furlough and a layoff and what is “force majeure?”

As the coronavirus crisis continues to develop, we are starting to notice a bunch of confusing words that we need to understand as they could directly impact our lives and our future. Here are a few, explained.

Paid leave vs. furloughs vs. layoffs

Paid leave: An employee gets time off but continues to receive pay and benefits.

  • Starbucks offered employees 14 days of “catastrophe pay” (even if they’re not sick).

Furlough: When an employer temporarily suspends an employee without pay but often continues to provide benefits. 

Layoff: When an employer indefinitely dismisses an employee. 

  • Companies of all sizes, from General Electric to Bird, have instituted layoffs of as much 30% of their workforces.
Shelter in place vs. lockdown vs. quarantine

Exact rules vary by location (check The New York Times’s running list here), but generally:

Shelter in place (AKA “stay at home”): Residents are asked to remain in their homes (except for essential travel).

  • All but 6 states had imposed some type of stay-at-home advisory as of March 30, but they typically lack enforcement mechanisms. 

Lockdown: Residents are required to stay in their homes (except for essential travel). Nonessential businesses are often required to close. These orders are sometimes enforced by fines and military personnel.

  • France and Italy are both requiring citizens to get certificates to leave their homes (even for essential travel).
  • No US states had imposed a full lockdown (as of March 30), but several counties in the Bay Area imposed fines for noncompliance.

Quarantine: Residents who have been exposed to or infected by the virus are required to limit their movement.

  • Florida and Kansas are requiring travelers from hot spots (like New York and California) to self-isolate for 14 days.
  • Hawaii and Rhode Island are requiring all travelers to self-isolate for 14 days.
One other important term to know:

Force majeure: A clause in a contract that lets a company off the hook for obligations in the event of an unforeseeable catastrophe (like, say, a global pandemic).


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