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Complaints about unemployment surged in 2020

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Illustration picture shows a man depositing his blue unemployment card in a mailbox at the CAPAC (Caisse auxiliaire de paiement des allocations de chomage) in Brussels. (BELGA PHOTO SISKA GREMMELPREZ)
06:02 29/04/2021

As a result of the health crisis, complaints about government services, specifically related to unemployment, have exploded, the office of the federal ombudsman said a press release Wednesday. The independent institution that handles citizens' complaints opened 7,544 cases in 2020, 10% more than in 2019.

This 10% increase - and even 20% compared to 2018 - is largely due to the coronavirus crisis that has led many citizens to rely on public services, the ombudsman said as it released its 2020 annual report and delivered it to the House of Representatives.

"In 2020, citizens mainly complained about the lengthy delays in which public services responded to their request or made a decision,” the statement read. “In 85% of the complaints it received, the ombudsman found a solution to the citizens' problems."

In 2020, the federal ombudsman received nearly 1,300 complaints about unemployment benefits - up from 65 in the previous year. Citizens complained about problems related to benefits payments, long waiting times and the lack of accessibility to social security service Capac and other departments which have been overwhelmed by the demands.

Lack of communication between services and differing definitions of claimants’ circumstances have also led to complaints and hardship on the part of citizens – and not only because of the unemployment situation becoming exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. In one case reported recently, a 27-year-old who lost her job in 2018 continued to receive demands for repayment of benefits from the CGSLB union for two years.

Camille, from Ixelles, explains in the report that she was initially recorded correctly as being a single person by the Onem social services who processed her claim. She lives in a house share where all the inhabitants are independent. An Onem inspector made a home visit as part of the claim process and confirmed that while Camille lived with others, she was not co-habiting, and was therefore entitled to the single person benefit.

However, the sharing and transfer of records between services for claims and those responsible for payment created a problem which resulted in the CGSLB recognising Camille as a co-habitant, a status which receives half as much money as a single person. The CGSLB then started to demand repayment for benefits paid since 2018. Camille complained as the demands increased and the case eventually ended up in front of the Labour Court in November last year. The verdict went in her favour but despite this, Camille now faces a probe from the tax authorities, prompted by the CGSLB’s record of her status.

Camille’s case would not have gone before the court and come to a conclusion in her favour had it not been for the assistance she received from an independent body who provided her with legal assistance. Her case highlights the need for bodies such as the ombudsman and others who help when the machinery of bureaucracy malfunctions or breaks down.

"Given the exceptional circumstances and the often precarious financial situation of unemployed citizens, discouraged and frustrated by their many approaches, we have played our role as external and independent intermediaries,” said federal ombudsman mediator Jérôme Aass. “Through mediation, we were able to restore communication and help many citizens."

Written by Nick Amies