In his State of the Nation Address on 11 February 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the special Covid-19 Temporary Employment Relief Scheme (Ters) benefit to 15 March 2021 — but for which sectors and from what date remains somewhat unclear.
Further to announcing that the extended benefits will cover only sectors who have not been allowed to operate due to lockdown regulations, the actual conditions of the extension and specifics regarding who will be covered are still to be announced following consultations with social partners at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
While it is hoped that the extension of Ters benefits to whomever they will ultimately be extended will provide much-needed relief to those who find themselves covered, what of the many others who find themselves without further relief but similarly badly affected by the regulations?
What of those who qualified for but have not received any Ters benefit payments to date due to existing backlogs and repeated system crashes; or those still awaiting outstanding payments after having been paid for some but not all of the months for which they initially qualified?
What of the interplay between other aspects of Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and Ters benefits? Specifically, what of UIF claims already submitted, or paid out, to those who will now be eligible for the extended Ters benefits for the same periods of time? How will UIF claims already submitted be cancelled in favour of Ters benefit applications and how will the system deal with what will appear to be claim duplications if the former is not processed simultaneously with, if not prior to, the latter?
If UIF money already paid out is converted to Ters benefits, are employees assured that they will be credited with their heretofore accumulated UIF entitlements – entitlements they will surely need should they lose their employment completely or have their hours reduced further in the future?
Is there even an existing and functional process to effect the conversion of one type of benefit to the other? Or will presumably lower UIF payments already made, and which would constitute a duplication of claims if not reversed, be deducted from the amount of extended Ters benefits for which an employee may qualify for the same time period – something which will result in the loss of accumulated UIF entitlements that might be needed in the future?
If the labour-market confusion seen in attempts to access Ters and UIF benefits to date is anything to go by, employers and employees, as well as government officials tasked with administering the systems, will need clear guidance and streamlined processes for lodging, calculating and authorising new Ters applications; alternatively obtaining UIF credits should convertible UIF entitlements already have been paid for the same time periods.
In sum, while the extension of the Ters benefit will hopefully provide welcome relief for many, the already overburdened and under-resourced systems and officials mandated to administrate the complex processes involved may struggle — not only to accommodate the flood of claims likely to be submitted but also to answer queries from understandably desperate would-be applicants and process relief payments timeously.
Accordingly, and notwithstanding the best of intentions on the part of government to provide extended temporary relief, let us not lose sight of the fact that many may continue to struggle to pay school and medical bills, keep a roof over their heads and basic food on the table.
With both Ters and UIF claims backlogs, and the inevitable need for already submitted UIF claim withdrawals in order not to have extended Ters benefits rejected — alternatively, the conversion of UIF payments already made to extended Ters benefits (and the concomitant need for the crediting of UIF entitlements) — I wonder if this is beyond the current, and already strained, capacity of the Department of Labour to handle. I sincerely hope not.
But, if yes, what will the impact be on the many genuinely struggling employers and employees nationwide for whom the extended benefits should be a lifeline, and how can we do our part in supporting both government and those in need in avoiding the impending chaos? DM