Staff made redundant by Edinburgh Woollen Mill have branded the company heartless.

Nineteen employees were made redundant at the fashion group’s Carlisle headquarters last month because footfall at its 1,300 stores collapsed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Just three days later, the Government introduced furlough leave – in which it would cover 80 per cent of workers’ wages temporarily laid off due to the rapid spread of Covid-19.

Its coronavirus job retention scheme also included an option for claims to be backdated until March 1 for businesses such as EWM Group that had acted before the announcement.

Two ex-workers – who wished to remain anonymous – appealed to company bosses for them and their colleagues to be reinstated and then put on the Government-backed furlough leave in a desperate bid to salvage a financial income.

But EWM Group ruled out the move, saying it did not see a future for the redundant roles as it braces itself for the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on its retail businesses, which include Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Peacocks and Jaeger brands.

Under current Government guidelines – designed to avoid mass redundancies – it remains at the discretion of a company whether it uses the support offered by the scheme.

One former employee, who worked at EWM Group for just over three months, said she was left shocked, angry and confused by the company’s handling of the redundancies, which focused on those who had most recently joined.

“The way they dealt with us was really unfair, it was heartless,” she said.

“There was no warning, it came completely out of the blue.

“I think we should have been given the chance to get that Government support.

“Even if we were made redundant in the end of it, it would have kept us going for a few months while we had time to work things out.

“It’s a time when employers should be supporting their people.

“A little kindness goes a long way.

“All of us now have the stress of having to pay rent and bills with no income. It is really hard to find a job right now.”

Another employee who had been with company for around a year-and-half, also criticised the company’s reluctance to draw on the Government support on offer, saying it had left him in mental as well as financial distress.

Calling into question whether the redundancy process was undertaken properly – a claim refuted by the company – he criticised EWM Group for making permanent staff redundant while keeping on temporary workers.

“If you look at the company’s profits, all staff could have been kept on until business returned to normal, even without help from the Government,” he said.

“This is nothing but an example of an organisation putting profit before people.

“EWM has shown a total lack of respect to me by failing to engage or acknowledge all communication, which speaks volumes about how much it cares about its staff.

“I have bills to pay that will be difficult and the uncertainty has a significant impact on my mental health.

“I have been lucky enough to find start agency work to help in the interim, but this will only likely last until Christmas if I am lucky.”

EWM announced the redundancies shortly after the Government advised those in their 70s – identified as one of the groups most at risk from Covid-19 – to stay at home.

The warning has also been heeded by many in their 50s and 60s, also key markets for EWM Group’s businesses and customers who are less likely to shop online.

The company had to temporarily close all of its stores, along with all other businesses deemed non-essential, as dictated by the Government.

A spokesman for EWM Group said: “When we made the redundancies, we did so because we sadly don’t believe these jobs will be there in the future. They won’t come back on the other side of this.

“This is not a temporary blip – things aren’t going to improve in a few months and keep improving.

“The high street is going through the most challenging period perhaps in the last 100 years.

“It is hard to understate the impact that this is having on retailers across the board right now.

“These redundancies were a very difficult decision for us and the team, and it wasn’t taken lightly.

“But we felt it was important to make an emergency decision to protect the vast majority of staff, including those who had worked for the company for the longest periods of time.”

“To us, it looks like this is going to go on for six, 12, possibly 18 months and that this period will see shopping habits and the high street change for good.

“We are worried that people will continue the current trend of staying away from the high street, which will hit us hard.”

The spokesman said the company had looked very carefully at re-hiring redundant staff and then placing them on the Government-backed furlough leave.

“It sounds easy on the face of it, but it is a lot more complicated, and unclear, than that,” he said.

“We also have to be honest with both the members of staff and the Government.

“If we did re-hire, we would have to go through the painful process of making these people redundant again after three months.

“We would also be claiming Government funding to pay for the bulk of people’s wages who we know we will ultimately be making redundant.

“That isn’t really fair on anyone.”

On the treatment of staff made redundant, the spokesman refuted claims the company had been heartless in its approach.

Accepting there was no easy way to deliver that kind of news, they added: “We went through the process as properly and responsibly as possible.

“Because the people affected had been with the company for a shorter period of time, there was no need for a long consultation period. We made sure that everyone was properly paid.

“We know this is a difficult time for people.”

The 19 job losses at Carlisle were among 100 redundancies made nationally by EWM Group last month, with the others taking place its Peacocks headquarters in Cardiff and Jaeger headquarters in London.

All of its store staff – which make up the vast majority of its 25,000 workforce – are currently on furlough leave, with the company planning to bring them back when its stores reopen.

The remaining staff have, following a consultation, agreed to slash their working hours by half for a two-month period should sales continue to nosedive, although that arrangement has not yet been put in place.

The crisis comes at the start of a year that EWM Group had hoped to expand the number of its high street stores in spite of the turbulence in the retail sector.

Buoyed by posting a £23.4 million profit after tax in its latest set of financial results, it is also in the final phases of finalising a deal for collapsed retailer Bonmarche.

EWM Group is owned by billionaire Philip Day.

He moved the group’s headquarters from Langholm to the multi-million-pound, purpose-designed Global House offices in Carlisle in November 2018, where around 200 employees work.

Its global distribution centre is based at the city’s Kingmoor Park.