SER opinion on WAO disability benefit conditionally supported by social partners
In March 2002, the Netherlands' tripartite Social and Economic Council (SER) issued its opinion on the reform of the Occupational Disability Insurance Act (WAO), which will be used by the government as the basis for legislative proposals. Although employers and trade unions are generally in agreement, they have some reservations.
A government-established committee examining the perennial issue of the high number of claimants of benefits under the Occupational Disability Insurance Act (Wet op de Arbeidsongeschiktheidsverzekering, WAO), issued its report in mid-2001 (NL0105131F). The 'Donner committee''s recommendation were presented to the tripartite Social and Economic Council (Sociaal Economische Raad, SER), which was to advise the government on new measures in this area. On 22 March 2002, after lengthy discussion (NL0201113F), the SER finally revealed its definitive opinion on the issue.
The SER adopted the proposals put forward by the Donner committee in their entirety. The underlying reasoning behind the proposals is that investing in prevention and assisting disabled employees back into the workplace should be a more attractive and easier option for employees and employers alike. To this end, the period of sickness absence preceding WAO eligibility should be extended to two years. A distinction is also drawn between fully disabled individuals, who will retain the right to claim full disability benefit, and partially disabled individuals (NL0108139N). For the latter group, efforts on the part of both employees and employers will be made in the attempt to find those concerned a suitable position. Various occupational illnesses will also be assessed in terms of the possibility of redeployment elsewhere. For example, a nurse with back problems could be offered an alternative administrative position. Employees will be penalised if they fail to cooperate in reintegration schemes of this kind. Penalties will also apply to employers unless they direct their efforts towards reintegration. The government will use the SER's opinion as the basis for formulating its legislative proposals.
The Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV) and the Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV) swiftly accepted the SER's opinion on the WAO. The two union federations are indeed SER members. In defence of the proposals, the FNV chair, Lodewijk de Waal said that 'there is no alternative.' However, despite ultimately changing tack, FNV's member unions remained highly critical. Their biggest bone of contention is that, under the proposals, during the second year of sickness, the employee's benefit of up to 70% of last-earned salary may no longer be topped up on the basis of the provisions of collective agreements. In the first year of sickness, benefits can still generally be topped up to 100% by collective agreed provisions. If employees resume work, albeit partially, during the second year of sickness, their salary will continue to be paid. Should employees become partially disabled after two years of sickness, they will have to insure themselves privately in order to supplement their benefit to the former level.
Employers and their representatives have raised further objections. Under the new plans, employer' financial responsibilities vis-à-vis disabled employees will last for two years instead of one. This should stimulate them to find creative redeployment solutions for their own employees within the company. Employers – led by the Federation of Small and Medium-sized Businesses (MKB-Nederland) – are particularly opposed to the idea that individuals partially employed during their second year of sickness will receive more income as a bonus just because they have resumed work. As far as employers are concerned, benefits for employees during the second year of sickness should not exceed 70% of their last-earned salary.