Q: I have been furloughed down to a two-day workweek due to the impact of the coronavirus on the small business I work for. HR has informed me that I should absolutely not be doing any work for the company on my days off. My boss is expecting the same output for a two-day week as a five-day week; he’s sending me daily emails with tasks that would be nearly impossible to complete in the time I have. What is a diplomatic (and firm) way to set realistic expectations with him?

A: Start with a phone call to confirm his intent, in which you open by gently reiterating the constraints on your capacity: “HR told me I’m not allowed to go beyond X hours. It’s not possible for me to finish all these items in that time.” From there, I see two possibilities requiring different approaches:

Scenario 1: He’ll indicate he’s just sending you tasks as he thinks of them, knowing they won’t all get done. In this case, you could respond, “Of course I’ll finish as much I can, but can you help me prioritize so I can focus on your most important items first?”

If you can be flexible about which hours you work, maybe offer a “break glass” option so you can complete urgent tasks right away — but be sure to track that time and include it in your official work hours for that week.

Scenario 2: He’ll make clear he expects you to get everything done even if it means working unpaid hours. In that case, you’ll need to punt: “Can we set up a call with HR and see if they’ll consider letting me have more hours?” That phrasing makes clear you’re willing to do the work for him, but your hands are tied. Either HR can warn him that he’s putting the company at risk of violating wage and hour laws, or he can persuade them that you’re doing essential work that requires more paid hours. If he refuses to talk to HR, talk to them yourself so his actions are on the record. If he keeps pushing, neutrally remind him every time that his request will put you beyond your time limit — and document everything.

Depending on what state you work in and how much of a pay cut you’ve taken, you may want to consider applying for unemployment benefits from your state. Even though you’re not unemployed, your reduced work and pay could qualify you for partial benefits. And if you qualify for state benefits, you may also qualify for additional money under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act expands the definition of who’s eligible for unemployment benefits and will kick in an additional $600 per week for benefits recipients, at no additional cost to employers, in states that sign on to the federal plan.

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Be warned that unemployment agencies nationwide are slammed, states’ eligibility criteria keep changing, and the federal government only recently issued guidance on implementing the CARES Act, so “everyone is trying to make sense of everything” and response times are delayed, says Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of employee advocacy group Workplace Fairness. Still, it’s worth applying now to reserve your place in the queue.

Ndjatou recommends filing online when possible, rather than trying to get through jammed phone lines; compiling thorough records of your work history, hours and income; and keeping copies of everything you file.

He also urges workers to “stay informed and understand what their rights are.” Workplacefairness.org provides a helpful, plain-English summary of each state’s unemployment insurance policies amid the coronavirus crisis, with links.

Pro tip: If you’re working a reduced schedule, set up your email auto-response and voice mail to outline your availability and anticipated response time — and stick to them.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)