A Royal Decree dated 22 April 2020 temporarily adapting several rules concerning the federal services was published in the Belgian Official Gazette a few days ago. The Decree introduces a number of special measures to deal with operational problems in the federal public sector resulting from the measures taken during the COVID-19 crisis and to ensure the continuity of the federal services.
The Royal Decree applies to the federal services (and their personnel) listed in article 1 of the Act of 22 July 1993 concerning various measures relating to civil service personnel. It follows that the Royal Decree is applicable to about 40 federal services: the Federal Public Services, the Federal Public Planning Services, the Ministry of Defence, social security institutions, and institutions of public interest. Moreover, it applies to both contractual and statutory agents of these federal services.
The Royal Decree enters into force with retroactive effect as of 18 March 2020 and will cease to apply on a date which will be set by royal decree (after the coronavirus crisis).
Temporarily loaning of personnel allowed
Temporary loaning of personnel is the preferred way to reorganise the available personnel. For this reason, as a rule, temporary loaning of personnel to satisfy urgent needs is allowed. If the urgent needs cannot be satisfied on a voluntary basis, the leading official can decide (unilaterally) to loan out personnel for a renewable maximum period of three months.
Civil servants who are medical personnel (i.e. civil servants with a medical diploma and who exercise a medical function) can be loaned to any public or private health service with urgent needs at these health services' own request. Even in the absence of a sufficient number of volunteers, the leading official can still (unilaterally) decide to loan medical personnel. During the temporary period of loaning, the administrative and financial rules of their federal service of origin will continue to apply to the civil servants concerned.
Holders of a mandate function at the federal services can also be loaned out to the Economic Risk Management Group ("ERMG").
The Royal Decree adapts the rules regarding teleworking. As a rule, teleworking in federal public services is only allowed with the agreement of the hierarchical superior and for a maximum of three days per week (in accordance with the Royal Decree of 22 November 2006). A circular dated 12 March 2020 had already encouraged teleworking and provided that teleworking during the coronavirus crisis would not be taken into account in the context of the limit of three days per week. The Ministerial Decree of 18 March 2020 made teleworking compulsory for all workers (including civil servants) whose function can be exercised from home.
The Royal Decree now goes further: if the function of a civil servant does not allow him to work from home and his presence at the workplace is not considered as essential or necessary by his hierarchical superior, the civil servant is considered to be available to the leading official. The leading official may give him work which should, as much as possible, be related to his function, and which can be done from home. The report to the King also mentions the possibility of following e‑learning courses.
For the periods during which the civil servant has no work, he will be considered free from service (with continued pay). However, during such periods, the civil servant can also still be loaned out as described above.
The Minister for the Civil Service has already announced that the limit of three days per week for teleworking will probably be abolished after the crisis.
Suspension of deadlines
Many specified time periods are applicable in the public sector, including with regard to evaluations, holidays, financial interventions and disciplinary measures. Failure to respect the relevant dates or lengths of time often entails a prejudice or a loss of rights for the civil servant. The coronavirus crisis makes it more difficult to respect these time periods.
Therefore, all specified time periods which entail a sanction if they are exceeded (except those regarding selection) are suspended as long as the coronavirus crisis continues. This covers all disciplinary procedures, for example. All proceedings before the appeal commission regarding evaluation are also suspended.
However, the period for introducing a disciplinary proceeding against a civil servant is not suspended. The same goes for the period for introducing a question or an appeal before the appeal commission regarding an evaluation.
Intervention in transportation costs
The Royal Decree of 13 July 2017 provides that civil servants are entitled to free public transport between their home and their workplace. Compensation is also possible if the civil servant cannot use public transport for the legitimate reasons listed in that Decree.
The Royal Decree of 22 April 2020 now extends the possibilities of compensation for civil servants who are requested to travel to their workplace. This compensation will apply irrespective of whether they use public transport or another means of transport. The reason given in the report to the King is that there is less public transport than in normal circumstances, and that civil servants may wish to avoid using public transport.
The amount of the monthly intervention is equal to the cost of a monthly second-class train pass.
Compensatory days off
The Royal Decree extends the 14-day period within which compensatory days off are to be taken until 31 December 2020. It also allows the working time limit of 50 hours per week to be exceeded until 31 December 2020 for Civil Security operational units and emergency centres; Desk T of the Immigration Office, and the services of the Customs Authorities.
For details of the measures taken for the private sector during the coronavirus crisis, please see our article on that subject here.