Proposal that employers pay for second month of sick leave draws sharp reactions

Proposal that employers pay for second month of sick leave draws sharp reactions
Credit: Belga

A proposal by Public Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) that employers pay for the second month of employees' sick leave has not found favour among employers' associations and a section of Belgium's coalition government.

The proposed measure, reported on Thursday by L’Echo and De Tijd, is a way of launching the second phase of the health minister’s disability policy which, according to the dailies, he hopes to see completed before the end of this parliamentary term.

The €420 million in revenue from this scheme would be used to part-finance a reduction in employers’ contributions.

Helping to get long-term disabled back to work

“The idea is not to put this €420 million into the budget, but rather to give it back to companies,” the dailies quote the Health Minister as saying. “A small part of this amount should strengthen the incentive to re-employ the long-term sick, but the greater part will be paid back to companies in the form of a general reduction in employers’ contributions.”

In this way, those employers who put employees on long-term sick leave back to work will gain, and others will lose, L’Echo pointed out.

The Federation of Enterprises in Belgium (FEB) has not welcomed the proposal with open arms. Its managing director, Pieter Timmermans, said on Radio 1 that it could only work if employees, health insurance funds, doctors and other stakeholders are also made aware of the issue. “In this country, people turn to employers even when it’s raining,” he said.

Employers’ organisations Voka and Unizo were also critical.

Mouvement Réformateur's misgivings on the proposal

The proposal is unlikely to be approved without modifications within Belgium’s ruling coalition. In a reaction to Belga News Agency, Deputy Prime Minister David Clarinval (Mouvement Réformateur) laid bare his misgivings.

“As I have already said several times during the discussions in the 'Kern' (Inner Cabinet) on tax reform, I am opposed to making employers bear the burden of the second month of sick leave,” he said. “At the moment, employers already have to pay for the first month’s absenteeism of their sick employees."

"Doubling this period does not seem to me to be a good solution, because not only does it represent a cost of €420 million to be borne by employers, but it does not in any way guarantee the accountability of certain doctors who would provide certificates of convenience, or health insurance companies, or even certain long-term disability workers, who would clearly not make enough effort to return to work,” he noted.

“As it stands, this is a measure that goes against the competitiveness of our businesses - an important element for me - which is part of a balance to be achieved for tax reform,” added Clarinval, who is also the Minister in charge of the Self-Employed and SMEs.

'Independents up in arms

Two organisations defending the self-employed have also taken up the cause. The Union des Classes Moyennes argues that the health minister's proposal is “totally unworkable” for SMEs. “This measure only adds to the basket – which is already too full – of employers’ obligations towards their employees,” it charged.

The Syndicat neutre pour indépendants (SNI), for its part, said it was “dumbfounded” by the Vooruit Minister’s proposal. “This is not the way to solve one of the most important problems facing our businesses: their competitiveness, which has already been severely undermined by the automatic indexation of salaries,” it stressed,.

The measure is likely to “further dissuade any employer from taking on staff in view of the risks involved,” the SNI added.

Part of a trade-off

Minister Vandenbroucke’s proposal is part of tax reforms being worked on by the federal government, and which the Liberals have conditioned on a reform of the labour market. They have presented a plan which, according to their calculations, would put 25,000 people into work and provide the means to finance a tax cut.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had set 21 July as the deadline for bringing the tax reform to a successful conclusion. However, the “real” deadline could also be 31 December, MR party chairman Georges-Louis Bouchez said on Tuesday.

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