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Temporarily unemployed because of coronavirus: What now?

Credit: Belga

Over 1.2 million people in Belgium have applied for temporary unemployment during the new coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, but who is (and isn’t) eligible, and what are their rights and obligations?

As all non-essential shops have closed and all events have been cancelled following the announcement of the government’s measures mid-March, and the measures have been extended to 19 April, but will likely be extended again as the government task force stated it was “far too early” to lift the measures, about 10% of Belgians have applied for unemployment benefits to get through the lockdown period.

The National Employment Office (NEO), which has to approve the applications, has drawn up a list of answers to frequently asked questions related to the coronavirus. Here are the biggest ones.

Who is eligible to receive unemployment benefits, who is not, and how much money do they get?

Manual workers and clerical workers (in the private, public and non-profit sectors), temporary workers during the term of their contract, contractual employees within an educational institution and apprentices on work-linked training courses are all eligible to receive temporary unemployment benefits.

Statutory civil servants, students, trainees, self-employed people in their main profession, and people in liberal professions are not eligible to receive those benefits. People who are incapacitated for work, for example by the coronavirus itself, are also not entitled to unemployment benefits.

Per day that a person is unemployed, the benefits amount to a minimum of €55.59 and a maximum of €74.17. On top of that, there is a supplement of €5.63 per day, due to force majeure caused by the coronavirus. However, 26.75% withholding tax is deducted from these amounts.

In total, someone being paid 26 days per month will receive between €1,165.93 and €1,519.79 net.

Which reasons are valid to apply for temporary unemployment?

– You are stuck abroad and cannot get to work.
– You are in quarantine.
– Your employer has had to close their business (for example, in the hospitality industry or the retail trade) or is no longer allowed to organise their event (for example, sports clubs or cultural institutions).
– Your employer no longer has any work for you, because there are not (enough) suppliers or customers.
– Your employer cannot respect hygiene or social distancing measures.

“In practice, we see that the National Employment Office (NEO) is very flexible and automatically validates almost all applications as soon as there is a link with the coronavirus,” said Jan Buelens, professor of labour law at the University of Antwerp, to Het Nieuwsblad.

My employer has sent me home. Do I still have to submit an application?

You have to fill in a form and submit it to your payment institution by 31 May at the latest. This can be done digitally, on the websites of the trade unions ABVV/FGTB, ACLVB/CGSLB, ACV/CSC and on those of the Unemployment Benefits Fund.

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Can I declare myself unilaterally technically unemployed, if I find my work too dangerous, for example?

“No, without an application from the employer you are not eligible,” said Buelens. “If you feel that your employer does not respect the measures concerning teleworking, hygiene and/or social distancing, you can report this to the social inspectorate or the police,” he added.

Can my employer oblige me to first take my holidays before he applies for temporary unemployment?

“No. The employer can ask, but they cannot force you to do it,” said Buelens. “Vacation days are determined by mutual agreement. Anyone who feels that they are being put under pressure to take holidays can report this to the social inspectorate,” he added.

Am I still entitled to all my leave days after the end of temporary unemployment?

“Yes. The government decided to equate the period of temporary unemployment with your normal period of work, but this has yet to be confirmed,” said Buelens. “If you still have twenty days of leave for 2020, and you had not planned them during the period of unemployment, you will still have twenty days of leave at the end of that period,” he added.

I had already applied for leave for the Easter holidays, but now I’m unemployed at home. Will I get unemployment benefits for those days?

No. During those holidays, your wages are paid by your employer. Only if the employer allows you to withdraw the leave, you can get a temporary unemployment allowance.

What happens if I become ill during temporary unemployment?

You are only entitled to a guaranteed salary for the days of illness that do not coincide with the days of temporary unemployment. For the other days of sickness, you will receive benefits from the health insurance fund.

May I carry out other paid activities while I am temporarily unemployed?

That is allowed, for example as a temporary employee or someone with a flexijob. However, the income from that job cannot be cumulated with the unemployment benefit. Paid activities have to be reported, and the excess benefits paid will be reclaimed, if necessary.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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