Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians have lost work as state and local officials shuttered businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Some have been laid off, while others are furloughed indefinitely. Some essential workers are furloughed part-time as their employer implements social distancing in the workplace. And that’s to say nothing of the workers who don’t fit into those categories, like domestic workers and gig workers, who don’t have traditional employment relationships but have nonetheless lost work during the crisis.

What’s the difference between a layoff and a furlough?

It’s a matter of your employment relationship. If you’re furloughed, you’re taking a forced, unpaid leave of absence — but you’re still an employee. If you’re laid off, your employment relationship with the company is over.

Either way, you’re likely eligible for unemployment. So in a lot of ways, for workers, there’s no difference in how the two statuses affect your ability to get unemployment benefits.

I got laid off, but my employer said they were hoping to bring me back. Am I less likely to get called back if I got laid off vs. being furloughed?

Not necessarily. Your employer could bring you back when this is over. It’s true that when people talk about layoffs, they’re often referring to one with more finality — as when the South Philly refinery shut for good and laid people off — but the coronavirus layoffs are slightly different in that many employers are laying workers off and saying it’s possible they’ll get called back when business resumes.

Am I still eligible for unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania if I got furloughed?

Yes. The Inquirer has heard from employers saying that they laid their workers off so they could get unemployment. That’s not accurate. You can get unemployment compensation if you are furloughed, too.

Why would a company furlough its workers instead of laying them off?

There are a number of factors an employer could consider, said Barbara Rittinger Rigo, an employer-side lawyer at Littler.

Furloughed workers can still get access to benefits, like health care coverage or paid time off, but they might not. Unless there’s a company policy saying otherwise, employers have no obligation to allow their workers to use their paid time off, for example. Employers also might not continue health-care benefits for furloughed workers, though some employers, like Urban Outfitters and Macy’s, have said they would. It depends on what the insurance plan dictates and what the employer chooses, Rigo said.

Another factor a company might weigh is the payout of benefits like paid sick leave or paid time off.

Some companies may have a policy that they pay out paid time off to workers when they are terminated but not when they are furloughed.

The Philadelphia paid sick leave law says that accrued paid sick leave does not have to be paid out upon termination (in this case, that means a layoff).

There has been some debate about this issue recently, as the Mayor’s Office of Labor has said that if an employer lays off its workers to get around allowing them to use their sick leave during the pandemic, that is a form of retaliation and against the law.

Rigo, though, said, “I don’t think that interpretation is fair to the businesses that are trying to survive.”

“There’s a lot of noise out there about employers not treating employees fairly,” but Rigo said she didn’t believe employers were looking at these decisions from a viewpoint of, “What’s the least we can give our workers?”

Are there any laws around when an employer can furlough a worker or lay a worker off?

No, unless you’re a union worker and have language in your collective bargaining agreement that says otherwise. But for the most part, employees in the United States are “at will," which means that employers can furlough you, lay you off, or fire you for any reason at any time. There are exceptions protected by law — employers cannot, for example, fire someone because of their race or sex — but workers have the burden of proving the employer fired them for that reason. (Last year, however, Philadelphia became the first city to pass a law that bars employers from firing parking lot workers without “just cause.”)

Also, if you got laid off, your employer could hire you back again. And if you got furloughed, your employer could lay you off at the end of that furlough. So there may not be much difference.