CORONA HR MEASURES: UPDATE Q3 (AND BEYOND?)

COVID-19
4 August 2021

Corona HR measures continue to appear regularly in the Belgian Official Gazette. These measures are diverse and are evolving rapidly. In this contribution, we provide a brief overview of the most important HR measures for the third quarter of 2021.

Teleworking

As of 27 June 2021, teleworking is no longer mandatory, but it remains strongly recommended for all companies for those employees whose functions are suited to it. The following measures no longer apply: the certificate confirming the need for presence at the workplace, the notification to the NSSO and the so-called “returning moments”. These modified rules are provisionally applicable until 30 September 2021.

In the case of international employment, teleworking as a result of the coronavirus benefits from continued neutral treatment for determining the applicable social security legislation until 31 December 2021.

Moreover, every company should be considering whether structural or occasional teleworking can be integrated into its business operations and preparing to implement it in the post-corona era.

Well-being at work

Companies still need to take appropriate preventive measures in a timely manner to ensure compliance with the rules on social distancing and to offer a maximum level of protection. The appropriate preventive measures are set out in the Generic guide for combatting the spread of COVID-19 at work, which has recently been revised for the fifth time. In the revised guide, several rules have been abolished or modified and a section on personnel parties and team buildings has been added.

Holidays

Travelling abroad is still subject to restrictions imposed by the national authorities. This also affects employers.

Employer’s rights regarding travel destinations

Even with the best intentions, an employer has no right to demand to know the travel destination of an employee or to prohibit an employee from travelling to a certain region. However, an employer may inform its employees concerning the quarantine restrictions that apply when returning from a certain destination. The company doctor and the inspectorates can always verify that the employee is respecting the testing and quarantine obligations.

Temporary unemployment benefits after visiting a red, orange or green holiday destination

  • If the employee returns from a green or orange region, there is no right to temporary unemployment benefits, not even with a quarantine certificate.
  • If the employee returns from a red region, there is no right to temporary unemployment benefits, not even when quarantine could be mandatory. There is an exception for employees testing positive whose travel region was not already red at the time of departure, provided that the employee is not unable to work and cannot work from home.
  • If the employee returns from a high-risk region, there is no right to temporary unemployment benefits, not even when quarantine is mandatory. The same exception applies.

Temporary unemployment benefits are nevertheless possible when essential travel abroad is involved – travel for professional purposes, for example. However, the National Employment Office (NEO) (“RVA”/“ONEM”) has the right to check whether the employer has acted manifestly unreasonably by sending the employee to a certain destination.

Testing at the company level

There is still no legal framework on testing at the company level. The Act of 2 April 2021 is still subject to implementation by a Royal Decree. A Royal Decree of 11 May 2021 does allow employers to offer self-tests to their employees. However, employees cannot be obliged to use such tests.

Supporting measures

For the third quarter of 2021, some supporting measures have been extended and others have been newly introduced.

Applicable to whom? Which measures?
All employers
  • COVID-19 bonus: Companies which have performed well during the COVID‑19 pandemic can offer a one-time bonus of a maximum of EUR 500 to their employees in the form of cheques in the period from 1 August 2021 until 31 December 2021 (cheques will be valid until 31 December 2022). These cheques are only subject to an employer’s social security contribution of 16.5%, and they are exempt from personal income tax and fully deductible for the employer (new).
  • Temporary unemployment due to force majeure via simplified procedure (extended).
  • Student work does not count towards the maximum of 475 hours a year (new).
  • Temporary suspension of career break and reduction of work (extended).
  • Supplementary pension and death coverage maintained for employees during periods of temporary unemployment (unless the employer has opted out of the pension build-up); employers have the opportunity to postpone the payment of contributions for the supplementary pension plan, without having to obtain permission from the pension institution (see also our previous update) (extended).
  • Loaning of personnel to the health sector, the education sector, the centres for contact tracing and the vaccination centres (extended).
Specific sectors
  • Sectors with reduced activity due to COVID-19, that had to close due to COVID-19, or that created employment: a reduction in social security contributions for a maximum of five employees per establishment unit (new).
  • The socio-cultural sector: increase of exemption of social security contributions up to 50 days in 2021 (previously 25 days) (new).
  • The hotel sector and the travel sector: reduction in social security contributions (extended).
  • Essential sectors (see Ministerial Decree of 28 October 2020): increase of voluntary overtime hours up to a maximum of 220 hours (extended).

In addition, the Council of Ministers has announced that voluntary overtime hours will be increased up to a maximum of 220 hours for the fourth quarter in the essential sectors and up to a maximum of 220 hours for the third and fourth quarters in the non-essential sectors. For 2022, voluntary overtime hours up to a maximum of 220 hours are possible for both the essential and non-essential sectors.

  • The events sector: reduction in employer’s social security contributions for a maximum of five employees (extended).
  • Employers in financial difficulties: payment plan with the NSSO (extended).
  • The health sector and the education sector: exception to the prohibition on consecutive fixed term employment agreements (extended).

The conditions for these measures are determined in the applicable legislation or can be found on the website of the FPS Employment or the NEO and/or in the administrative instructions of the NSSO.

In addition, the different regions in Belgium have taken additional (financial) measures to support the sectors affected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What does the future hold?

The Belgian Government intends to change the approach from October 2021 onwards. The focus will be on exceptional measures and relaunch-initiatives. We will be closely monitoring these legal changes.