A decision by the federal parliament to grant a voucher worth €300 to hospital staff as a gesture of thanks for their service during the coronacrisis has come under fire from two directions.
The idea of rewarding care staff for their service during difficult times and at great personal risk first arose in April, when a bonus of €1,450 was floated, but only for those working independently in the health sector, which would have meant mainly doctors and pharmacists, and skipped most other front-line staff.
Then in June the Superkern came up with the idea of employers being able to give a €300 voucher tax-free to employees, for use in restaurants, cultural and other events. The gesture received little uptake, especially given that at the time and still, there were no cultural and other events available.
Now the finance committee of the federal parliament has passed a motion calling for hospital staff to be given a voucher worth €300. That would cost a total of €37.5 million for the 125,000 care workers concerned, with most going to doctors and higher-grade nurses, who earn more in any case.
But that was a federal decision, and only concerns the nation’s hospitals.
At the same time, a motion in the Flemish parliament to make a similar gesture towards care-home workers was defeated by the governing majority.
The result is that 125,000 hospital workers will receive the voucher, while 127,000 Flemish care-home workers will get nothing. This, despite the fact that the care homes saw just over 50% of all deaths in Belgium — 4,861 compared to 4,748 in hospitals.
And since the two sectors fall under two different authorities, that’s how it’s likely to remain.
But the second complaint comes from the hospital sector itself.
According to the union representative Mark Selleslach, the offer of a voucher is “shameful” while the sector is looking for structural solutions to its ongoing problems.
“This is what really should not be happening,” he told De Tijd.
“Last week we took action to demand structural measures, including decent wages. Buying people out with a restaurant cheque is kind of embarrassing. A present might seem nice, but it is not the answer people were waiting for. It is also very paternalistic not to allow staff even the choice of what to do with the money.”
Parliament’s decision not only falls short of demands, it may even have sunk them, he said.
“Consultations have started between employers, unions and the government about structural solutions. Throwing that amount of money into a one-off gift upsets those negotiations.” The fear now is that no further progress on genuine demands will be possible.
Meanwhile in the Netherlands, the government has approved a seemingly more generous €1,000 premium for hospital workers, but not including doctors, and only for those staff – nurses and support staff alike — who were directly involved with Covid-19 cases.
That will cost the taxpayer €800 million, but has caused anger among other hospital staff, who were affected indirectly by the crisis, for example by working short-staffed while all available hands were busy with the virus.
And as in Belgium, the health-care sector is more interested in higher basic salaries and structural improvements in the service, rather than one-off gifts dependent on the charity of politicians.