Like many small businesses, we run on a shoestring, some months living off the credit cards and then topping up in the good months, with no cash reserves for difficult times.
In January we imagined that the Coronavirus would be a flash in the pan, and like its predecessors, it would probably never get as far as South Africa.
By mid-March we were living in a different world. Our major customer, our bread and butter, informed us that they would no longer be ordering and with the collapse of tourism they were closing all their shops.
Hurried interviews with our labour consultants led to us working short time and reassuring the staff that as soon as the crisis was over we would get back to a semblance of normal production.
Then came notice of the three-week lockdown. We were comforted by the news that assistance would come from the UIF and, as an interim measure, we paid out the accrued leave pay (from the credit card) and awaited instructions. These came rapidly from our labour consultant, together with a wad of forms and a pamphlet from the Department of Labour. On the last day of work – 26 March – all the staff went (in work time) to their various banks to get the UI-2.8 (proof of bank account forms) stamped and signed. Then UI-2.1 had to be hastily completed and signed before they left early to scramble for lockdown supplies.
The weekend was taken up by completing UI-2.7 and UI-2.8, UI-19, three months’ worth of payslips for each staff member, copies of IDs and a letter informing the UIF that the staff had been laid off due to the lockdown. With a sigh of relief, an email with a heap of attachments was sent off to the appropriate email address from the pamphlet. We sat back and contemplated our financial doom at our leisure. A week went by. We heard nothing.
A call to the labour consultant revealed the startling news that the system had been changed and followed up with a new pamphlet and a spreadsheet to complete and then convert into a .csv file. The conversion process involved changing Windows settings, saving the Excel file as a .csv file, then adding and removing elements from the .csv file and changing it to a .txt file, then changing the name of the .txt file – 15 steps in all.
We were puzzled that the Excel spreadsheet did not have columns for employee names and ID numbers. The next day a new spreadsheet arrived with the added columns. Obviously we weren’t the only ones who had noticed this.
We promptly added the missing details and forwarded the spreadsheet to the consultant who very kindly did the 15 steps on our behalf and submitted the new document to the UIF.
Done and dusted?! No.
The application was noted, but not processed, as the employees appeared not to be registered at the UIF (although we have previous/ longstanding correspondence with the UIF concerning maternity leave, etc).
The consultant remains optimistic – if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again. “It could just be that their computer is overworked. Perhaps it will go through over the weekend.”
By now it’s Monday 11 May. A new pamphlet appears: the COVID 19 TERS EMPLOYEE FINAL USER GUIDE. We feel very much like final users. This is confirmed by our consultant who suggests we follow the guide, more or less, and register our employees. This means that someone has to register on the UIF website. Easy peasy. I go to the website, click register, go to the next screen, enter my details, choose a username and password and I’m off.
No, I’m not.
Apparently I’m already registered under another user name, probably from some time in the distant past when I was an employee.
No problem, let’s call one of the three phone numbers at the bottom of the screen. The first one gives us a voice message directing us to the website, or another number, which happens to be the next number on the list. I try that one. It gives the tone for numbers that don’t exist. I try the third one. It’s the same voice message as the first number.
The labour consultant is helpful and encouraging. Why not register under your wife’s name. Back to the website, click register, fill in the required information, choose username and password and click to proceed. Nothing happens. Try again. Nothing.
The consultant advises to wait until after dark, when the system is not so busy. This is good advice and at 9pm we have an email confirming our username and giving us a temporary password. Now to enter the staff information, but first you have to answer several sets of multiple choice security questions. There’s a discussion with the wife – did she choose that Gmail address for her surreptitious online activities? She can’t remember, so we choose “none”. That turns out to be the correct answer (relief all round) and NOW we will register the staff. The first bit of information needed is the ID number. Obviously, the UIF is linked to Home Affairs and will quickly have the person’s name on the screen. Wrong. Our employee is “not registered with the UIF”. But we knew that. Back to the drawing board.
We try the last one that took maternity leave, late last year. But she’s not there either.
Tonight the president speaks again. Millions have received billions from the UIF. Our hearts sink. My wife can’t breathe. Are we the only ones? Are we that stupid?
By now, our ever-patient employees are becoming restive and the messages in our WhatsApp group are becoming terse. One of them suggests phoning the UIF. We have tried that and there is no answer. “Well, have you tried *Ujanda (not her real name) on *089 444 3333 (not her real number) and btw here is her eMail address. Call her tomorrow, but only after 10.”
Clutching at last straws we dash off an email to Ujanda. Tomorrow we are up at ten (early lockdown rising time) and on the second attempt Ujanda ANSWERS. No, she cannot help us, it isn’t her department.
“Is there anyone who can help us?”
“Yes, try *Penelope on *022 444 3333 (not her real number) . She works with that”. Ujanda is a gem, and is told so.
Penelope answers her phone. Yes, she can help. There are children’s voices in the background. Yes, she is working from home. She listens patiently while I summarise all of the above. “Email me your spreadsheet and I’ll get my team to enter your information.”
Then the big questions: Are we the only ones?
“Many companies big and small are having similar problems”. Sigh of relief.
That was Friday afternoon. On Saturday we get a WhatsApp from an employee. She is about to receive R3,452.10. Why was R47.90 deducted?
It turns out it’s not what you know but who you know.
Reflection: Our staff have been with us for a long time. When we signed up to the UIF it was all done by paperwork. Sometime later the online facility was introduced. Some companies, probably the ones with HR departments, found this convenient but many have continued with the paper system. Covid-19 has caught everyone on the wrong foot, including the UIF. I somehow doubt that they transferred employees from the paper system to the online system, neither did they notify the paper people to switch to online.
The UIF employees are human, quite nicely human, and are just as overwhelmed by the pandemic as we are. DM
*Not their real names or numbers
Peter Wanliss is a former school principal, matriculation examiner and education adviser, and is currently a director of an established, 25-year-old small business in Cape Town.
Ring of Fire as performed by Johnny Cash was actually written by June Carter.