The 2nd wave of COVID-19: Latest obligations, restrictions and support measures in Belgium

PIETER PECINOVSKY

Now that Belgium has been hit by a “second wave” outbreak of the coronavirus, Belgian employers and employees are facing new (or renewed) governmental measures to prevent the further spread of the virus. At the same time, the government has decided to implement further support measures to make sure that companies and employers receive a fair chance to survive this crisis. Below we give an overview of the most important measures. At the time of publication (13/11/2020), some of these measures do not yet have a legal basis.

  1. Obligations and restrictions

a) Telework is mandatory

Telework is mandatory for all companies, unless it is not possible for the function or because of the necessary continuity of the production or services of the company. In the latter case, however, preventive measures must be taken (see below) like social distancing, the provision of sufficient ventilation and wearing face masks. Employees who cannot perform telework due to their function (or due to the continuity of the company) are required to prove this contention with a certificate from their employer; an obligation laid down in the Ministerial Decree of 28 October 2020. For now, the obligation remains valid until 13 December 2020 (but could be prolonged).

b) Important update of the Generic Guide of Preventive Measures

The Ministerial Decree of 28 October 2020 obliges companies to take preventive measures. The companies can consult the Generic Guide to see which measures they should implement and how they should do so, in order for companies to continue their activities in complete safety and to minimise the spread of Covid-19. The Guide has been updated since 30 October 2020, by taking into account the new circumstances and the findings of the last months; e.g. there is more information on the importance of masks that cover the mouth and nose. The sectors can further specify the instructions in their own guides. You can find the Generic Guide on the website of the FPS Employment (NL/FR/EN/DE).

c) Obligation to close for B2C stores and hospitality sector

The hospitality or catering sector (restaurants and bars, but not hotels) and non-essential stores are obliged to close. Take-away and delivery services are still possible. The Ministerial Decree of 28 October 2020 contains a list of the essential stores that may remain open. These include, for example, grocery stores, pharmacies and shops offering care and hygiene products.

 

  1. Support measures

a) Flexible application of Temporary unemployment due to coronavirus

From 1 October 2020 to 31 March 2021, there is a return of the simplified temporary unemployment procedure for all employers and employees. Temporary unemployment due to corona is therefore again considered, in almost all cases, as temporary unemployment due to corona force majeure. On 31 August 2020, the first period of simplification came to an end, as it was only possible for employers which could prove that they were hit hard by the corona-crisis or which belonged to a specific sector. More information about the simplified procedure is to be found on the website of the National Employment Office or “NEO” (NL / FR).

b) Temporary unemployment because of lack of childcare or closure of schools

Instead of the corona parental leave (this system ceased to exist on 1 October 2020), it is possible for employees to invoke temporary unemployment due to the coronavirus when the school or care centre for their child (partially) closes. We have reported this before, but the system has become even more flexible (so it could be used for the extended autumn break) and it is now clear that employers cannot refuse their employees this temporary unemployment.

c) Government will help to fund the holiday pay of temporary unemployment workers

The government will partly contribute to the financing of the holiday pay for workers who are put on temporary unemployment. In the calculation of the holiday pay, the days of temporary unemployment are equated with working days. The government wants to compensate the employers for this equation, by sharing the burden of the costs for the holiday pay.

d) Waiver of social security contributions in 3rd quarter of 2020

The scope for the exemption of the employer’s social security contribution for the third quarter of 2020, is extended to other sectors (other than catering industry and the events sector) that were forced to close. Suppliers to the sectors that are obliged to close down can make use of this measure, if they can demonstrate a loss of turnover of at least 65%. There will be a ceiling per company on the total amount of this exemption. The Government continues to discuss the specific rules for this waiver, which will be executed in the form of financial compensation. See website National Social Security Office or “NSSO” (NL / FR).

e) Decrease of withholding tax for temporary unemployment

The withholding tax rate on the statutory benefits for temporary unemployed workers, has been reduced (from 26.75% to 15%) for benefits paid from 1 May 2020 to 31 December 2020.

f) NEO will pay a supplementary premium on top of the end-of-the-year premium of temporary unemployed workers

Persons who have at least 52 days of temporary unemployment, receive 10 EUR per additional day of temporary unemployment, on top of these 52 days.

g) Several measures to flexibilise employment in crucial and essential sectors:

  • Increasing the voluntary overtime limit to 220 hours in the healthcare sector, other crucial sectors and essential services. These additional overtime hours will be exempt from social security and the withholding tax, and will not be subject to overtime pay.
  • Facilitating the temporary hiring out of employees to another employer in the healthcare sector or education sector.
  • Temporarily unemployed persons are allowed to work in agriculture, horticulture, healthcare and education sectors while maintaining 75% of their benefits.
  • Temporarily unemployed persons may conclude consecutive fixed-term contracts of at least 7 days with another employer, in health care and education.
  • An increase of the legal ceilings for the cumulation of a living wage with the income from seasonal work, and for the income from work by students with a scholarship.
  • Extension of the COVID-19 Compensation Fund for volunteers and permission for commercial hospitals to employ volunteers.
  • Extension of a package of pension measures, among other things, to ensure that pensioners who work as employees or self-employed workers can combine their pension with a benefit for temporary unemployment or a right to a bridging pension. Pensioners who temporarily return to work, for example in healthcare or in education, will not lose any part of their pension.
  • Doubling of the seasonal workers quota for agriculture and horticulture, also in the year 2021, and temporary unemployment for seasonal workers who arrive in Belgium and have to go into quarantine.

 

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