Since the beginning of March 2020, the coronavirus crisis has hit Belgian enterprises hard, including social services of general interest. According to the recommendations of the National Security Council and the measures taken in the wake by the federal government, a significant number of structures have had or have been forced to close or put part of their workers in situation of temporary unemployment for force majeure or for economic reasons.
Almost all of these structures have, as sources of income, both subsidies and own income. This can cause financial problems for these structures: own income decreases / disappears, and subsidies can also decrease (because objectives will not be reached) while costs remain (wages, rents, infrastructure, etc.).
In enterprises that do not close, there is a proliferation of medical certificates of incapacity for work with coverage by employers via the guaranteed salary. All this leads to a certain number of difficulties in terms of the sustainability of the activity of many social services of general interest. In this context, it turns out that legislation is not always adapted to the specific nature of social services of general interest. First, measures relating to telework are not practicable in a series of sectors such as hospitals and healthcare in general. Insofar as these are essential services, the personnel is therefore directly exposed to the risks of contamination, especially as there is a shortage of equipment (masks in particular). Substantial additional resources must therefore be made available to enable these services to fulfil their missions of general interest.
In addition, temporary unemployment due to force majeure is subject to sometimes too strict application by the National Employment Office. As for temporary unemployment for economic reasons, which requires to be recognised beforehand, as a “company in difficulty”, it is a status difficult to access for social services of general interest. The criteria which must be met relate to concepts such as turnover, production and commands, which do not naturally blend with the specificity of these sectors.
The measures announced by the government generate a multiplication of medical certificates of incapacity for work with assumption of the wages guaranteed by the employers, knowing that the latter, because of the slowdown or even the cessation of their activities, are no longer able to meet their obligations in this regard. This phenomenon is accentuated by the possibility open to physicians to now issue a medical certificate simply after a telephone consultation.
Finally, both the cessation of activities and the use of temporary unemployment measures raise the question of the impact on the funding of a series of social services of general interest. In this context of crisis, it is important not to further weaken organizations by reducing this funding.
Belgian social services of general interest need:
- A major simplification of temporary unemployment schemes coupled with the widest possible scope of application for a maximum of structures to benefit from them;
- Compensation by public authorities to cope with the proliferation of medical certificates;
- Additional resources for essential services (in particular healthcare) so that they can fulfill their missions in the fight against COVID-19 disease;
- Guarantee that the funding granted by the subsidizing authorities will be maintained;
- Broad and flexible interpretation of a series of labor law rules:
- working time and flexibility (while respecting the health of workers);
- student work;
- provision of personnel;
- staff mobility;
- recognition of COVID-19 for certain groups of workers as an occupational disease.
In the background, it is essential that the European Union’s institutions free a budget that is matching the catastrophe that is looming if social services of general interest do not receive the financial support necessary to fulfil their mission in this context of unprecedented crisis.