The measures were first announced in October last year. It is designed to facilitate the (partial) return to work of the around 500,000 people in Belgium that are currently on long-term sick pay.
As well as companies and those on long-term sick leave the new bill also contains measures that will affect doctors and the health mutuals. The measures are part of the ongoing effort to increase the employment rate in Belgium to 80% of the working age population (18 to 65).
Since they were first announced last October, the measures have been criticised by both employers and the trade unions.
Long-term sick leave
Speaking on Friday morning the Federal Health Minister Franck Vandenbroucke (Flemish socialist) said "We especially want to give opportunities to people who are on long-term sick leave. Many of them want to go back to work and together we will look for suitable work for them”.
"People who have been on sick leave for long time will receive a questionnaire. Based on this we will examine whether there are opportunities for them to find another job. Filling in the questionnaire is essential. Anyone who fails to do so will be given help. Those offered help that persistently refuse it will be sanctioned. They will lose 2.5% of the sick pay benefit they receive. As soon as they start cooperating, their level of full sick pay benefit will be restored"
Mr Vandenbroucke is keen to stress that the Federal Government does not want to force long-term sick people to go back to work, but rather wants to provide them with the information necessary for them to know what their options are.
People on long-term sick leave will be sent a questionnaire via the health mutual. This will be done once they have been off work sick for a period of 10 weeks.
The questionnaires are already being sent out. However, from next year those that fail to complete them will see their sick pay cut by 2.5%. If they have failed to complete the questionaire withing two week they will be offered help to do so. They could also be granted exemption from having to fill in the questionnaire if a doctor says that there is a valid medical reason preventing them from doing so.
If two invitations to fill in the questionnaire are ignored sanctions will take effect. However, the sanctions will be revoked immediately if the person in question make an appointment to discuss their situation. Only if he or she still does not show up will the sanctions become more long-term
A sanctioning mechanism has also been devised for companies that have a disproportionately large number of their staff on long-term sick leave.
"Companies will be notified if we notice that a lot of their staff are off on long-term sick leave. If nothing changes, they will have to pay a fine. The fine will be 0.625% of their payroll. The money raised from the fines will be used to pay for measures to improve working conditions. We above all want to encourage companies to take action as soon as they receive the warning, so that we do not have to issue fines", Mr Vandenbroucke said.
The companies that will be issued with warnings are companies where at least three employees have been off work for at least twelve months during the last four quarters and where the number of long-term sick people is three times higher than the average for the private sector as a whole and double the average in their own sector of the economy.
Companies will be warned two quarters in advance that they are in danger of exceeding the thresholds set. The first sanctions will be issued to companies during the second quarter of next year.
The system will only apply to companies with more than 50 employees and only employees aged 55 and younger that have been with the company for at least 3 years will be taken into account.
The role of the health mutuals is crucial to the new system. Any health mutuals that fail to cooperate sufficient will also be sanctioned. A decision on what these sanctions will be taken next month.
Doctors too have a role to play in the “Back to work” plan. "It is the doctors that decide how long a person is incapacitated for work. They will be given a list containing the standard expected period of incapacity for work for various conditions. That list has been developed in collaboration with scientists and doctors and is intended to aid the doctors.", Mr Vandenbroucke said.