This year, in response to the unprecedented worldwide economic downturn and in addition to existing protectionist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments, countries renewed their focus on local workforce protections, but with a new emphasis on mitigating the risk of infection and compensating for skyrocketing unemployment rates. Along with widespread travel restrictions to ban the entry of entire groups of foreign nationals, many governments used a range of methods to restrict admission and work rights by imposing heightened eligibility criteria, decreasing quotas and increasing minimum salary levels.
Most countries promulgated restrictive entry and exit rules, and foreign nationals who were allowed entry faced complex and often intrusive health and entry requirements, and in many cases, strict criteria for work authorization that was implemented before COVID-19. Additionally, many countries divided essential workers from non-essential ones, creating a new category of admissibility, and a rapid acceleration of the digital transformation was seen to limit person-to-person contact during immigration processing. If there was ever a year of rapid global change in immigration rules, this was it.
Birth of New Type of Restrictionsim
As the epidemiological situation around the world changed, COVID-19-related travel restrictions ranged from broad entry bans to constantly changing specific bans with exceptions based on citizenship and/or originating country. A new type of restrictionism developed with the easing of travel restrictions. Policies began to focus heavily on health certificates, medical screenings and other related measures. While borders were starting to reopen, employers reconsidered sending their employees abroad in light of the implications of quarantine requirements. Faced with the inconvenience and interruption caused by mandatory quarantines, many travellers were reluctant (or unable) to partake in any form of travel during this quarter.
Implementation of Immigration Policy Reviews and Overhauls Sidelined by COVID-19 Response
With government resources limited, the need for recovery from government closures—including reconciling application backlogs and regularizing out-of-status foreign nationals—will be at the forefront of immigration administrations’ concerns in the short term. As a result, immigration policy overhauls planned for implementation during late 2020 and into 2021 have been delayed in many countries.
Travel Alliances in Stark Contrast to Divergent Policies
As economies struggled to reopen and compensate for months of closures, travel bubbles (also referred as “travel corridors” and “air bridges”) created among countries with similar COVID-19 infection rates resulted in lenient entry rules or exceptions to entry bans/quarantine, to facilitate travel and help improve each country’s economy. In stark contrast to coordinated agreements, a key 2020 trend was the diversion of many local/state governments from centralized plans that were created to coordinate travel policy changes. This was particularly noticeable in the European Union (EU), where the European Council recommended that EU countries lift the external border restrictions for a limited number of countries, based on objective criteria related to the COVID-19 infection rate and whether reciprocal policies apply. EU Member States, however, took a country-by-country approach, creating uncoordinated and complex entry rules.
Unprecedented Unemployment Rates Exacerbate Protectionism
In both developed and developing economies, the pandemic is causing unprecedented job losses and business closures. The unemployment rate in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries increased by an unprecedented 2.9 percentage points in April 2020 to 8.4%, compared to 5.5% in March. As economies begin to reopen, unemployment is projected to fall, but remain substantially above pre-pandemic levels. As a result, policies across the world will continue to shift more toward the protection of local workforce to mitigate unprecedented job losses. As history has shown, countries will likely continue to turn inward in response to sustained high unemployment rates but will ultimately seek to improve their fiscal situation by welcoming foreign talent and foreign investment (often an underrated source for economic recovery).
Work-from-Anywhere the New Normal
Many employees were moved to remote work situations in countries with temporary and ambiguous remote working concessions, that were often hastily created in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. In many cases, companies were compelled to follow temporary government remote work regulations that often led to the employer being noncompliant with labour and other laws. Many times, whether an employee could work remotely under their work authorization depended on several factors, such as the terms of the employment agreement (Austria), the location of work (Canada), or the visa category (United States). These and other scenarios created compliance risks beyond those related to immigration law (e.g., employment law, social security law, tax implications, etc.).
Some employees ended up working in a country other than the one where they applied for work rights. As governments scrambled to catch up to such decisions, lawmakers created ambiguous policies that did not contemplate saving employers and their employees from the various legal compliance risks. The combination of uncharted legislative and policy territory and hasty decisions to address immediate needs resulted in a period of chaotic employer policy changes. This is especially important in the context of the Posted Workers Directive in the EU, where employers are required to comply with strict standards to ensure the posted worker’s working conditions are the same as local workers. In many ways, an ideal approach for remote workers would be if more immigration systems separated the need for company sponsorship from work authorization eligibility, which would allow for more flexible employment agreements, such as employee-leasing or third-party placements.
Immigration Policies and Special Concessions for Essential Workers
The pandemic created a new division in the immigration landscape. Essential workers, such as healthcare workers, production and food processing workers, maintenance workers, agricultural workers, and truck drivers, and other categories of workers deemed necessary in the fight against COVID-19, were exempt from entry bans. This approach may create a new policy focused on workers deemed essential by the destination country governments for various situations (even outside this pandemic) and could create more opportunities for local and foreign medium-skilled workers. Labour protections, such as quotas and labour market tests, traditionally disfavoured such applicants, who in many countries are considered medium- and even low-skilled.
Education-focused Immigration Programs May Increase Opportunities for Medium-Skilled Foreign Workers
Prior to COVID-19, immigration programs in countries that sought to attract the best and brightest featured eligibility criteria based on high standards of professional skills and experience. Conversely, education-based programs, such as the post-graduate practical training program in the United States, were the focus of many immigration-related restrictions. When COVID-19 hit, there was a heightened need for medical professionals and other essential—but lower-skilled, lower-paid—workers. Immigration schemes may start to reflect such needs in entry rules; immigration paths may be created especially for such entrants and protectionism may ease to allow special exemptions and rules for medium-skilled workers with certain educations such as vocational or non-traditional schooling, or otherwise. This is already seen in the United Kingdom, where the new points-based system will create a preferential route just for healthcare workers with a job offer.
Fragomen believes the following key trends will strongly impact the immigration landscape in the next several years. While there is no direct action to be taken now, they feel these trends require close observation, as they will likely have a significant impact on how business is conducted in the future.
Health Assessments in the Spotlight
While the topic of an “immunity passport” caught on during the early days of the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the World Health Organization warned that there is no evidence that those who have recovered from COVID-19 have antibodies or are protected from re-infection. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that up to half of antibody tests could incorrectly state that an individual has antibodies. For these reasons, among other, immunity passports are not a realistic option as a basis for travel rights. However, health records for travellers, often referred to as a “health passport,” containing antibody test results, recent negative COVID-19 test results and proof of vaccination are now becoming the norm.
Government Need to Increase Revenue May Impact Employer Budgets
Just like nearly every private industry, public government departments suffered from cuts in spending and expenditures in national health and economic recovery programs. As governments aim to rebuild economies post-COVID-19, politicians will have difficult decisions to make with respect to how to recoup funds after months of closures of public services. In some countries, this could result in higher taxes, while in others it may result in cuts on public spending.
Attempts to compensate for losses could have two effects:
∞ Higher application fees and fines for noncompliance. Employers and foreign nationals could see increased application fees for both initial and renewal applications. Fees for noncompliance with immigration regulations could also increase.
∞ Increased enforcement efforts. Government motivations to increase noncompliance fines could lead immigration departments and other governmental bodies that enforce immigration and employment law to expand their watchdog roles and increase the volume of their enforcement efforts, if resources and laws allow it.
This means employers will need to factor increased fees— which could prove to be dramatic—into their budgets. Employers should be prepared for stricter enforcement efforts, including government audits of workplaces and workplace documents, as well as increased strictness in reviewing employer and foreign nationals’ immigration applications.
Mismatch in Demographics to Create Work Opportunities
The working age population in most high-income countries is declining, while elderly populations are growing. By 2050, the prime working-age populations of OECD countries will have shrunk by more than 92 million people, while their populations over 65 years old will have grown by more than 100 million people. This means OECD countries are facing a gap of more than 15 million workers per year, or a total of 400 million workers over 30 years. However, many lower-income countries have working-age populations that are growing faster than job creation rates (e.g., Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Middle East). Since it has been proven that the potential income gain from mobility exceeds the gain from more schooling, this could mean a great opportunity for foreign workers.
Manufacturing Will Move to Home Countries, Decreasing Long-term Assignments
COVID-19 has exposed the fragility of supply chains. Governments and companies will start to review manufacturing locations and move facilities home to create a more dependable and sustainable supply chain. Pharmaceutical and medical supply manufacturing locations were under a microscope during COVID-19, as personal protective equipment shortages loomed and reliance on Chinese production was strong. These may be the first of many industries that shift production to other locations in the long term. In 2021 and after the pandemic, U.S. and European companies will likely reconsider their supply and service ties with China, which could either spur a growth in home country production and service jobs, or a spread of production in other production hubs with low wages.
This could reduce out-of-country travel needs and could instead re-focus hiring efforts on local populations (including immigrants in the home country under local hire work permits). This will also force companies to create new forms of automation to decrease the costs of onshore production, which may create needs to cut budgets elsewhere. Alternatively, COVID-19-related financial losses will, for many companies, undercut the ability to move production at this time, as very little spare capital remains to make such drastic changes. However, the conversation and concern were amplified during the pandemic and, in three to five years, moving production posts could become more of a reality for employers with continued concerns about the stability, both economically and politically, in China.
Finally, Fragomen believes the private sector will play an ever more significant role in shaping immigration policy. With the past several years of immigration restrictions spurring the business community to become more involved in policy development at both national and international levels, organisations such as the Global Forum for Migration and Development help the private sector raise awareness of the benefits of labour migration. The pandemic has brought the role of the private sector into even higher relief as governments and organisations work to balance crucial COVID-19 containment measures with mechanisms to support the global economy.
For the full report, please visit the Fragomen website.
For employees not having been granted the “expat status”, but normally frequently travelling for business purposes, COVID19 could cause unpleasant tax surprises. Indeed, in general, on the basis of Article 15 (OECD model) of the applicable double taxation treaty, an employee is taxable in his home State, except where he can prove his physical presence abroad for the performance of his professional activities. The salary corresponding to those working days exercised abroad are then normally exempted in the state of residence and taxable abroad (the working State). If, because of the COVID19 crisis, the employee is unable to perform abroad and this, contrary to his normal working rhythm, this would normally have a serious impact on his tax situation. In principle, this means that this employee would suddenly (at least for the COVID19 crisis period) only perform in his home state and would thus be taxable in his home state on a bigger part of his salary.
In this context, Belgium concluded amicable agreements with Germany, The Netherlands, France and Luxembourg to counter such unexpected effects. The solution is that for those who cannot work in the usual working state because of the COVID19 measures and are stuck at home, these working days from home will be ignored in terms of the analysis of the allocation of the taxing authority on the basis of the applicable double taxation treaty. In other words, the “home” working days are -by fiction- considered to have been performed where work would normally have been performed under a normal work regime.
For employees who fall under the scope of Article 15 of these double tax treaties a solution has thus been agreed upon.
Some expats benefiting from the special tax regime believed such rule would also be applied to their situation. This not true and therefore this may mean “bad news”.
As you know, for expats benefiting from the special tax regime, the taxable basis is calculated using the so-called “travel exclusion”. The days performed outside Belgium are not allocated to Belgium and the corresponding wage is not taxable in Belgium.
COVID19 home working days are not deemed fiscally neutral compared to their normal working and travel patterns.
The tax administration has indicated that the general rules remain in place for expats and therefore there is no “COVID19 tolerance” for working from home for them.
For the calculation of the Belgian taxable basis, they will only consider the working days actually performed abroad.
For the expat who travelled less and was “stuck” in Belgium, this will mean an increase of the Belgian tax debt. For those who were “stuck” abroad and performed more working days abroad, the Belgian tax debt will fall. For the latter group, attention should be paid to a possible increase in foreign tax burden in case they have remained tax resident in their home country.
For one group clearly undesirable effects, for the other a more pleasant prospect in difficult times. For companies that have expats in the first category, I recommend that you have a conversation about this in time, check the contractual agreements (gross/net guarantee) and adjust where needed the salary withholding tax in due time.
“It has hit in waves,” says Willemijn. “In March we were blindsided; suddenly this strange and scary new virus had us sheltering in place, adjusting to life in lockdown. You could feel the unrest and insecurity, but we were all in it together. Then life started picking up again. Companies started reboarding staff, making plans for how many people from which teams could come into work on what days. Everybody had their own system. We started feeling positive again. Antwerp went through a lockdown-light in August, but it was effective and we were confident.”
Impact of Restrictions on Wellbeing
Summer may have provided some temporary relief, but face masks, social bubbles and work-from-home or hybrid regimes are firmly back in place again as confirmed cases of the novel corona virus continue to rise. Nobody will deny the importance of human contact and personal interaction for our mental wellbeing, so what effect can we expect these measures to have on us?
“We offered companies a free mental resilience scan earlier this spring to see how people were faring under the lockdown. It was a small-scale study, but the results were highly disconcerting: 42% of respondents were unable to motivate themselves to work from home and 53% felt employers weren’t clearly communicating their expectations. A powerful mix of stressors piled on top of personal, economic and financial insecurities.”
“Every industry has been impacted, and people are feeling under pressure, albeit for different reasons. Temporary workers don’t know if contracts will be renewed. The hospitality and event sectors are struggling to keep their heads above water. Health care workers have barely had time to catch their breath before this second wave hit. We have nowhere near reached the end of the road and I expect more people will start suffering in silence as the months roll on.”
Singles Suffer the Most
“That being said, we have noticed that singles suffer the most,” Willemijn continues. “Families are challenged to effectively work from home whilst teaching the kids and running a household all at the same time, but at least you have someone to hold on to when things get on top of you. Singles rely on colleagues and friends for social cohesion. They really miss the workplace and descend into depression much quicker.”
Getting up every day, getting dressed and motivating yourself to stay focused isn’t always easy. You can cope with the loneliness for a while, but distractions lie at every turn. You do a quick lap with the vacuum cleaner whilst waiting for the washing machine to finish its spin cycle, but then get distracted by something else and before you know it, half the day is gone. You might as well just call it a day and settle in for some Netflix. The lack of structure leads to feelings of guilt and the negative emotional spiral can be crippling believes Willemijn. Prof. Dr. Elke Van Hoof, Expert in the Superior Health Council of Belgium, has been quoted as saying a tsunami of corona burnouts is heading our way. But is it burnout, depression or something else altogether?
Burnout or Depression?
“Great question. Only time will tell I guess, but I personally believe the balance is tilting towards depression. We are social beings and feeling a person’s touch, whether through a handshake or a hug, is a basic human need. Social bonding releases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and without it our cortisol (the stress hormone) levels skyrocket. We can manage short periods of stress (which trigger our natural fight-or-flight response), but when the balance shifts too far in one direction, the body starts sending out distress signals: headaches, a sore neck, heavy legs, tingling in the arm. All symptoms associated with a burnout. But I don’t believe that we should automatically view our body’s response to the stress of adapting to this ‘new normal’ – whatever that might be – as a burnout.”
“We are living through stressful times, and yes, of course work plays a big role. We spend eight hours a day at work, but now we’re working from home and are expected to stay close to home, if not at home, as much as possible. So where can we find the rest and relaxation we need to switch off and give our brains a break? Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”
A positive mindset can help a great deal of course, but what if you’re naturally prone to worry? Hourly news updates of spiking rates and overrun hospitals, opposing voices on social media and in the news; none of it helps ease the unquiet mind. Even the most resilient amongst us are susceptible to moments of panic confesses Willemijn.
“Quite literally, today’s societal disruptions are disrupting our brains and with that, our mental wellbeing.”
Daily Sources of Stress
“Just recently I was forced to miss my niece’s eighteenth birthday. I’d woken up with a bit of a cough and a light fever and convinced myself it was corona. My dad is a high-risk profile and the whole family was due to meet. From making an appointment with my GP to getting my test results back took ten days. Ten days that I spent making excuses so as to not worry my family, worrying about whom I’d seen in the two preceding weeks, worrying about their families, friends and colleagues. In the end I got the all-clear from the doctor, but those ten days of waiting were incredibly stressful and I ended up missing my niece’s birthday party, which made me feel sad too.”
“Companies are seeing similar worries coming from their employees and find themselves navigating tricky situations on a daily basis. A client’s key sales person had recently returned from honeymoon and the team demanded he got tested before returning to work. So on the one hand we have an entire team flat-out refusing to work with a colleague, and on the other we have our honeymooner, who has no way of getting tested on a Sunday evening and is forced to miss an important meeting. How do you manage this? What’s your company policy going to be? It’s just one of the infinite ways in which COVID-19 not only impacts how we work together, but how we treat each other too.”
“Because let’s be very clear: everything we do right now is a source of stress. Work from home? It brings stress into your safe haven. Reboarding? Places stress on teams and management alike. Going to the shops? Stressful stuff because who last touched that keypad? It begins the moment we get out of bed and you can quite easily drive yourself nuts worrying.”
Soothing the Unquiet Mind
What then is the solution? Do we allow ourselves a five-minute freak-out in the morning and then just get on with things? Ping an elastic band on our wrists every time we catch ourselves spiralling? How do we stop worry getting the better of us? And how can companies instil trust in both teams and process?
“Communication is key,” suggests Willemijn. “Organisations have to be clear about what they expect from their employees and how these expectations – and measures – will be managed. Are you going for a hybrid setup or is everyone WFH until further notice? How long is this likely to last, and what is guiding your decision making? How will you be reboarding people? What kind of support can team members expect?”
“We’ve created an entire series of webinars for our clients as individual employees have different needs. Everything from online yoga classes to brain training sessions to strengthen mental resilience has proven to be hugely popular. But you can’t just rely on tools. Organisations also need to make sure there is room for informal conversations, like you’d normally have while waiting for the kettle to boil. You need to nourish social cohesion, and if that means a weekly online coffee hour or creating a buddy programme where people check in with one another, then that’s what you need to introduce.”
“Bring structure to your day and alternate between the things that give you energy and those that cost energy.”
Bring Positivity Back
“Personally, I’ve stopped watching the news. There’s no point, it just makes you worry more. I receive a morning push message with the latest statistics. I look at it and then delete it. Tune out the bad news to maintain a positive mindset. Similarly, when I watch a movie or a series, I only watch nice things. Laughter helps release endorphins so watch a good comedy or call a friend and get silly together. I also love watching things that uplift and inspire me, such as TED talks or webinars, and listen to podcasts that put me in a positive mindset.”
“Take yourself out of your comfort zone. You live at home, work from home, maybe the kids are home too, as well as your partner. Even if you have more time now that the daily commute has fallen away, you shouldn’t be using that time to work more. Instead, challenge yourself to do or learn something new. I’ve started studying to become a neuropsychologist. Why not? I have time now. There are so many free apps and classes to be found online. Learn yoga, start doing pilates, lift some bags of sugar for weights… Exercise is essential to a healthy body and mind and there’s so much you can do at home.”
“Card games such as memory are a super simple but effective way of training your brain and keeping concentration and memory skills on point. Whether it’s an online game of solitary or a board game with the family, playing games stops you worrying about things you can’t control. It’s one of the few good things to have come out of all this: people are playing games again and spending more quality time together. Also be sure to stay in touch with the people you care about. Schedule weekly FaceTime or Zoom chats with loved ones near and far.”
“If you’re going to be spending this much time at home, make it nice. Get a floral subscription – I used to get flowers delivered every other week, but have now upgraded it to weekly as fresh flowers really bring me joy – light some candles every evening, read a book, dig in your garden, paint the wall that’s been irritating you for so long, do the things that make you feel good about your environment.”
“Find some time to meditate every day, or even easier: find a theta wave playlist that works for you. Theta waves are hertz waves and the ‘pure’ stuff sounds awful, but some YouTube playlists are almost music-like. Where alpha waves energise, theta waves soothe the brain and relax you. Just stick on your headphones and sit back for twenty minutes or so before you go to bed. It works wonders. You can put it on your speakers while you cook or do yoga, but to get the full benefit, use headphones. Just don’t put it on in the car or you might just doze off,” laughs Willemijn.
“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, bring structure into your daily routine. It’s all good and well adding all these new things into your day, but you need to maintain balance. I’ve used Excel to make a weekly schedule for myself that alternates between the things that give me energy and those that cost energy. Mornings are for studying, then I exercise before doing an online intake or coaching session, after which I meditate. Continuously switch between relaxation and effort, and block off enough time for each in your daily planner.”
Eight Top Tips
• Stop watching the news, a daily push message is enough to keep you updated;
• Watch things that uplift, inspire and make you smile;
• Step out of your comfort zone and learn something new;
• Exercise daily and play games to refocus your mind;
• Stay in touch with your loved ones;
• Create a warm and happy home environment;
• Quiet your mind through meditation or theta waves;
• Bring structure into your day and alternate between effort and energy.
Visit www.pinkrebelrevolution.com for more information on recovering from burnout and for free webinars to help you strengthen your mental resilience.
All of the respondents reported experiencing major changes to bookings and occupancy rates as soon as the first lockdown was announced. From tenants abruptly returning to their home countries to last-minute cancellations of newly expected arrivals, the industry was thrown into disarray from one day to the next. However, the sudden drop in new bookings was mostly balanced out by residents who found their assignments extended due to travel restrictions.
“Many of our residents left abruptly to return to their respective home countries when the first lockdown was announced. From having been fully booked, we were almost empty overnight. During that same period, we received requests from people stranded in Waterloo and in need of temporary housing as a result of hotels shutting down and/or not being able to secure a flight back home. Strangers became grateful guests.”
Marijke Gilmore, DVM Furnished Housing
“Together with the Antwerp Hotel Association we gave away 500 free nights to doctors, nurses and caregivers from hospitals in Antwerp when bookings went down. This way essential workers could stay closer to work when doing double shifts or rest during the day when working night shifts.”
Filip Goorden, Arass Hotel & Business Flats
“Lockdown was very strange, as everything ground to a halt from one day to the next. Thankfully, our property management and trustee services kept us busy. Once the borders opened up again things slowly went back to normal, but bookings can change at an instant depending on home countries’ latest COVID rules.”
Guillaume Dubucq, Skyline Renting
Unsurprisingly, health and safety came out as the number one concern. From ensuring social distancing can be maintained throughout the communal areas to daily disinfection and hygienic collection systems for linens, serviced accommodation providers have been careful to implement all WHO and government guidelines. Cancellation policies and flexibility of bookings were the second most popular demand with clients.
“Daily cleaning of all communal areas with efficient products, clear signposting regarding the importance of hand washing and maintaining a social distance, staff wearing protective gloves and masks whilst working, asking tenants to leave their apartments during cleaning if they can… All the measures we have implemented are designed to keep our guests safe and offer them peace of mind.”
Filip W, Belsquare Residence
“We have found that many customers use our apartments for quarantine purposes and working from home and shopping for food has been a concern. To assist we have been adapting our services and spaces to ensure they can comfortably work from home in safety. We have delivered food welcome packs to tenants who are unable to shop on arrival and our technicians have helped a number of tenants rearrange furnishings in their apartments to configure remote working office spaces.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF
“We created adapted policies related to cancellations and early departures in response to client concerns. We also offer solutions for guests in quarantine, so they can live with the necessary comfort without leaving their studio or apartment. Most importantly, we created a Safety Charter together with our local teams and suppliers that takes into account feedback from clients as well as government and WHO advice into consideration.”
Wendy Croes, Premier Suites Plus
Service as Usual?
It isn’t just tenants who are expected to work from home during the lockdown; accommodation providers too have to limit the number of workers on site. From having just one staff member and a single housekeeper on site per shift, to closing down breakfast bars and communal areas, on the whole, service does not continue as usual for our members during lockdown.
Instead, creative solutions such as breakfast bags and linen drop offs are popular ways of providing guests with as much comfort as possible. Feedback on such measures is positive as guests feel their safety concerns are being heard.
“We have chosen to limit our services as much as possible as guests’ main concern is staying safely within their bubble. As all our apartments are fully equipped with all necessary white goods, guests are fully self-sufficient. We ensure they have spare sets of bed linens and towels and provide ample sanitizing products. Service is not quite as usual, instead we adjust our rates accordingly, and we all prefer it this way. That said, the utility costs will increase for us as people spend more time at home.”
Marijke Gilmore, DVM Furnished Housing
“Although we have had to temporarily halt our cleaning services, our technical support remains assured at all times with the team handling all requests for technical support. In the commercial field, we work with virtual tours and 3D videos of our apartments and residences. The safest way during this pandemic to show our apartments to prospective tenants.”
Robbie Vercarre, RentMore
For the accommodation providers with shared amenities on offer, hygiene and booking systems take centre stage in the fight against COVID-19. Tenants are able to book hourly timeslots in gyms, which are disinfected after every use. Communal areas where guests can meet up have become significantly less popular since the start of the pandemic, even if guests do report missing human interaction. Thankfully spacious living rooms means guests are able to exercise in their apartments during times of restricted movement.
Expectations & Assignments
The fact that serviced apartments come fully equipped has proven to be a major draw for companies sending staff overseas. Uncertainty on the future of travel meant a lot companies waited to see what actions others were taking with regards to foreign assignments, but as the months rolled on, mobility picked up again as confidence in the sector grew. Being able to cook in your own kitchen, do your own laundry and work from home in a spacious environment with high speed internet means sheltering in place is comfortable and safe. Especially for guests coming from countries that require a quarantine, a serviced apartment is the perfect solution.
“In Antwerp the projects that started up again first, were mainly in the Port of Antwerp. People that travel for work stay longer, but also demand flexibility as their stay can change at once if rules change again. I do believe guests chose places where they feel safe and apartments that offer more space offer more comfort.”
Filip Goorden, Arass Hotel & Business Flats
“We noticed that expats who were at the end of their assignments had their assignments extended as their employers or embassies were unable to fly in their successors. Instead, they extended the work contracts for the people already in Belgium.”
Guillaume Dubucq, Skyline Renting
“Guests have become more approachable and are hugely understanding of any changes or restrictions to our services in line with government advice. Bookings are often made at the very last minute and others stay longer than initially expected. In general companies expect more flexibility in terms of operations and bookings or cancellations.”
Laura Temmerman, Residence Inn Ghent
Without a doubt, COVID has had an impact on the housing industry. Heightened health and safety protocols, a flexible approach to changes and last-minute bookings, virtual tours and more are changes that are likely to stay. Now more than ever, a frictionless experience has become a must, even if this does complicate matters from an operational point of view. The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties for the economy and taking an agile approach has become the norm for organisations in all sectors.
As companies discover work from home as a viable option in times of need, the benefits of a serviced apartment over a hotel room become even more obvious. Apartments with an outdoor space such as a terrace or garden are seeing increased demand as tenants find themselves spending more time in their apartment than usual.
“Technology plays a big part in how the client wants the booking process to be. They either choose whether it is tech-led with, for example, instant bookings, live availability or a more consultative approach with human interaction. This time also offers an opportunity to develop the business and look at new areas of the business.”
Yolanda Blomjous, SITU
“We have seen this as an incredible opportunity to really study the expat and travelling professional’s needs and ensure that our services are flexible enough to meet the needs of the full lifecycle of their relocation requirements. For example, short stay apartments like Zilverhof Residence are a five minute drive from the international airport and available for weekly rentals, making them ideal for travellers needing to quarantine.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF
“Needs will always evolve, but we do not believe it will have a lasting impact on business. Brussels remains the European capital and international business people and Eurocrats will always have a home here.”
Robbie Vercarre, RentMore
Respondents are unanimous in their positive outlook on the future. Yes, things have changed and yes, these remain trying times for everyone but members are committed to meeting all governmental and customer demands to ensure guests enjoy a safe and pleasurable stay in Belgium.
“It has been a great opportunity to adapt and strive to improve the services for our customers. We have seen the market begin to change and we are working hard to ensure that we are ready to continue meeting these changes as we head into 2021 with our flexible offerings and apartments for each stage of business professionals’ relocation lifecycle.”
Stephany Cowley, BBF
“A lot will depend on politics and the measures different countries implement, as well as medical advances. COVID has definitely had an impact on how we experience social life and how we work, and it will take years to back to where we were in the past.”
Laura Temmerman, Residence Inn Ghent
“Every struggle, every challenge, creates new experiences that we should embrace and use in our future business. This pandemic is one of a kind and made history, but it will never change the fact that the Hospitality Industry is a People Industry. Our daily goal is to welcome our residents in a healthy, safe and warm environment so that they feel at home…”
Wendy Croes, Premier Suites Plus
“With travel being put on hold and postponed, this is a good time to review temporary housing policies and to look at suppliers in a different light. A more personal approach seems to be the way forward, after all, we are in this together and nobody knows what the future holds but there will be a new normal!”
Yolanda Blomjous, SITU
For a complete overview of ABRA members that provide serviced accommodation, please visit
Since 20 August 2020, the Belgian government continued to seek alignment with the EU recommendations and announced new guidelines that would formalise the broadening of the scope of workers considered as highly skilled essential workers exempt from the travel ban. Updated guidelines applicable as of 11 September, make official solutions for both short- and long-term travellers (being less or more than 90 days in any 180 day period).
Long-term travellers from “White Listed” countries
From 25 September onwards Belgium foresees in a removal of border restrictions and quarantine requirement for all travellers coming from so called ‘While Listed’ countries. Travellers coming from these countries are permitted to travel to Belgium regardless of the travel purpose, provided that they comply with standard visa and entry criteria. These countries originate from the listing originally issued under the Council Recommendation of June 30. Countries currently included in the list are: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand and Uruguay (list subject to change – check https://diplomatie.belgium.be/nl for a most updated version).
Long-term travellers from countries that are not “White Listed”
All foreign nationals who qualify for a single permit based on a work authorization category exempt from labour market testing are automatically included in the category of essential workers. This includes specialised technicians and shortage occupations in the Flanders and Walloon regions of Belgium. All foreign nationals who have been issued an Annex 46 in the procedure towards obtaining a Single Permit will qualify for the VISA D (B34). Equally, the EU Blue Card applicants continue to qualify for the Visa D (B29).
Short-term travel from countries that are not “White Listed”
Belgium has also included an important exception on the travel ban for short-term travellers who can demonstrate the essential character of their activities in Belgium.. In order to meet these criteria, travellers must obtain an “Attestation of Essential Travel” (template available on the website of the Immigration Office) from the relevant Diplomatic Post. To obtain the attestation, you must submit the documents that prove the essential nature of the activities, such as a work permit B, documents supporting the work authorisation exemption and statement(s) from the employer. We recommend that all travellers obtain this attestation to avoid queries by airline companies or Belgian border inspection services.
Finally it is also Important to mention that self-employed workers will no longer be subject to the travel ban if they can carry the relevant VISA D and/or “Attestation of Essential Travel.” It remains important that all travellers complete the Public Health Passenger Locator Form (PLF) 48 hours prior to arriving in Belgium. Proof that the PLF has been completed will need to be given to the airline when boarding the plane. Travellers will need to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival from a red zone and should only be tested if they present symptoms. Note that that the quarantine can only be lifted based upon the optional self-assessment or to fulfil the essential purpose of the trip and to the extent that this activity cannot be postponed to a later date.
After months of highly restricted access options to Belgium, these adjusted guidelines bring a wind of change and allow companies to reconsider the remobilisation of foreign national staff, which is crucial for business recovery and economic growth.
Opportunities for workforce planning – what companies should do:
1. Keep up to date with government measures. These measures are constantly changing and windows of opportunity for enhanced mobility can appear. It is crucial to develop broad awareness of the restrictions, as well as a deep understanding of business solutions.
2. Develop creative remobilisation strategies. As there are variances among EU countries with respect to border openings, employers can use the more “relaxed” countries, such as Belgium, as entry points into the EU.
3. Explore EU-wide permits/facilitated immigration routes. European legislation and European Court of Justice case law provides facilitated routes for non-EU nationals to work in more than one EU country. This allows companies to explore the full potential of their EU-based workforce while it remains challenging to bring employees from outside the EU.
4. Make sure you remain compliant. The work and travel patterns of your employees may adjust substantially to the current circumstances: working from home and/or client site, furlough schemes and more frequent business travel inside the EU. Employers must remain vigilant to the employment, immigration and social security legislation requirements with which they may have to comply in this new landscape.
The IPI/BIV contested this ruling at the Council of State (Raad van State/Conseil d’État) on November 12th but the case was rejected on November 14th (FR / NL). Please take careful note of the information shared below as we have heard reports of fines up to €2000 for those found in breach of regulations.
From a strictly legal point of view, physical visits for home searches and/or surveys are not authorized as we are currently under lockdown. In practice, some real estate agencies are still conducting visits (dependent on region) and others are only doing virtual visits. We understand that each case is different, but we strongly advise you to postpone house hunts until the matter has been resolved. The Colour Code Protocol published by the Flemish Ministry of Housing appears to be the safest (and clearest) guideline to follow until further notice.
Many industries – including home cleaning services, removal services and real estate services – have published guides to safely resuming business post-lockdown and the measures outlined here should be followed at all times. However, keep in mind that these guides were written with a loosening of restrictions in mind. Measures include maintaining a safe distance, hygiene precautions and minimising the number of people in a space at any given time.
Ministry of Housing (Flanders)
Colour Code Protocol (PDF)
Safety at Work
For your interest, the following is the IPI/BIV’s take on current governmental guidelines. This reasoning has, however, been rejected. Home viewings are not authorised under the current lockdown.
May I open my office?
Under Article 6(3) of the MB of 1-11-2020, companies offering services to consumers are closed to the public. Intermediaries and stewards have to work behind closed doors in their real estate offices. Teleworking is compulsory unless this is impossible due to the nature of the job.
Site visits and place descriptions are allowed, as there is no ban on non-essential movements. The sector advises restricting a place visit to a maximum of 2 visitors at a time, in addition to the real estate agent. Respect the sector guide at all times!
We have made an informative film for consumers about the course of the physical site visits. In it, we show that the real estate agent takes all precautions and protective measures to ensure that the site visit runs as smoothly and safely as possible.
Which measures do I need to take?
Can home visits, surveys, etc. take place?
Under Article 6(3) of the MB of 1-11-2020, companies offering services to consumers are closed to the public. Intermediaries and stewards have to work behind closed doors in their real estate offices.
Teleworking is compulsory unless this is impossible due to the nature of the job.
Site visits and place descriptions are allowed, as there is no ban on non-essential movements. The sector advises restricting a place visit to a maximum of 2 visitors at a time, in addition to the real estate agent. Respect the sector guide at all times!
In addition, the FPS Economy published the ‘guide to the opening of trade’. The content of this guide can be supplemented in accordance with the guidelines of the National Security Council. This guide also applies to free professional activities without physical contact, see p.7.
Please also note that the Flemish Government approved a protocol for the rental market based on colour codes. The application of the measures is made dependent on the stage of the coronavirus pandemic and is indicated by colour codes ranging from green, over yellow and orange to red. The Minister of Housing determines which colour code applies.
After all, you usually only fire off the occasional late night email or put the finishing touches to that report before turning off your laptop and settling in for the night. However, this new reality is expected to last anywhere from a few more weeks to eighteen months or more. This means we can expect to be working from home for quite some time to come, and even when the lockdown lifts, it may be reinstated at a future date. And so we thought some lessons from a professional freelancer might be welcome in helping you stay sane in the confines of your home.
Because working from home means lots of distractions, and anything that helps you focus is worth looking into. From the cat meandering into your Zoom meeting to the depressing stain on the wall you are facing, it’s not as easy to be productive as you might have expected. The things we can usually ignore are suddenly magnified as we spend all day confined in our own little bubble.
Time then to give our home office a bit of love. Yes, it matters which way your desk is facing and yes, it’s important to have a good desk chair. You can take my word for it. Desk work is back breaking and you’ll be hard pressed to find a chiropractor willing to take new clients right now. Spend some time online and find that perfect chair; your back and neck will thank you for it. Similarly, move your desk around the room until it feels right. Clear those piles of bills away and make it yours.
Order a pot of paint and a brush, and freshen up that wall. Get rid of the wobbly table that houses your printer and invest in something stylish. You’re going to be looking at it for eight hours a day for the foreseeable future. You might as well treat yourself. Don’t forget to order in fresh flowers to cheer up both yourself and your work space. It’s the small things that make a difference.
Ideally, a decent work space means somewhere you can close the door on. Not just from the kids or the dog for obvious reasons, but where your work is out of your field of vision. It’s ever so tempting to just finish that one small item off your to-do list as dinner is in the oven, but – speaking from experience – you’ll find yourself working late into the night. All this leads to is unrealistic expectations from international clients who suddenly find you are always available, heightened irritability, and of course sleeping in late because you’re exhausted from burning the midnight oil. It’s a slippery slope. Finding and sticking to a healthy rhythm is essential when working from home. Be strict, turn off that computer at the end of the day and don’t touch it again until tomorrow. Oh, and take the weekend off.
Apps like Slack, Trello and Asana can help remote teams stay on track, and are essential when you’re trying to manage projects from home. Holding the middle ground between a digital to-do list, a Whatsapp group and email, they go a long way towards keeping your mailbox free of clutter and help you pool information and resources within the team.
On a side note, please remain vigilant when it comes to strange emails, attachments and other unusual activity. Hackers are having a field day with so many people suddenly working from home computers. So update your software to the latest version, get a good password manager and consider investing in anti-virus software that packs a punch such as Malwarebytes. SafeonWeb also has some great tips to keep you safe online.
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Keep On Keeping On
With movement restricted to just the essentials, you’ll quickly find the walls are closing in on you. And although your dog may be enjoying the extra walks, they’re hardly adding productivity to your day. So, as well as your daily excursion round the block, find an online class you can really get into. Personally, I’m a huge fan of Yoga with Kassandra on YouTube. Her ten to fifteen minute stretch classes are a great way to start your morning, injecting energy and focus into your day. From guided morning meditations to hour-long Vinyasa flows for flexibility, she has something for everyone.
In the name of research I decided to check out overnight global phenomenon Joe Wick, also known as The Body Coach. I enjoyed every second of the 30-minute session, but can tell you my glutes and calves are in agony today. His cheerful delivery and personal shout-outs to the kids online are sure to put a smile on your face and give your day a much-needed boost. It’s not surprising his daily PE class has captured the imagination of parents and kids alike, with week 1 of ‘PE with Joe’ racking up views from 17 million households around the world. Thirty second bursts of HIIT-style exercises include everything from ‘bunny hops’ to ‘Spiderman lunges’ (shooting imaginary webs from your wrists) are live-streamed straight from his living room at 11am CET. So give it a whirl, I’ll be there again tomorrow, cat and dog tripping me up.
After Work Apero
Speaking of internet sensations, the video chat app HouseParty has seen a massive increase in downloads, with Vogue hailing it “the quarantine app you need to download immediately”. Just like with Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Google Hangouts, you can video call with friends, but unlike with these, people can just join in the ‘party’ without you needing to add them to the call. This can have surprising benefits, as well as some potential pitfalls.
We’ll leave it to you to decide how and with whom you prefer organising your virtual happy hour, but socialising is key to staying sane when it’s just you and your four walls. So be sure to take some time out to have some fun with family, friends and colleagues, even if it has to remain virtual for now. We’re looking forward to hosting the first virtual ABRA Apero on Friday April 17th from 6pm, an invite will follow separately.
Finally, tempting as it might be to open that bottle of vino and go into holiday modus sometime around midday, know that this too shall pass and we expect things will become busier than ever before when lockdowns around the world lift and borders are reopened. As EuRA’s CEO Tad Zurlinden said last week “Our industry is going to be at the forefront of rebuilding commerce and economies all over the world and we need to be ready to react fast and big when that day comes”.
Deferral of Payment and Guarantees
The banks and the government are very much aware of the difficult situation in which both companies and individuals now find themselves. They want to support and financially support them as much as possible. In this way, they have every opportunity to get through this turbulent period as well as possible and to quickly find a stable financial situation as soon as the corona crisis has subsided.
Together with the Minister of Finance, and with the support of the National Bank of Belgium, the sector has worked out an agreement for viable companies, based on two pillars:
■ The financial sector is committed to viable businesses and the self-employed as well as mortgage borrowers who are at risk of payment problems by postponing the corona crisis until 30 September 2020, and this without charging any costs.
■ The federal government will activate a guarantee scheme for all new loans and credit lines with a maximum term of 12 months, granted by banks to viable non-financial businesses and the self-employed.
These support measures are intended to provide financial flexibility in order to to enable taxpayers to overcome temporary financial difficulties.
a. Which companies?
Natural or legal persons with an enterprise number (ECB/KBO):
∞ regardless of their sector of activity
∞ who are experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the spread of the coronavirus and can demonstrate this (e.g., a decrease in the number of business, a significant drop in orders and/or reservations, chain reaction effects with partner companies, etc.). Support measures may not be granted to undertakings which, regardless of coronavirus, experience structural payment problems.
b. What debts?
∞ Withholding tax (bedrijfsvoorheffing / précompte professionel)
∞ VAT (payment deadlines are extended interest free)
∞ Personal income tax
∞ Corporate income tax
∞ Taxation of legal persons
c. What is the timeframe?
∞ Application to be submitted no later than 30 June 2020
d. What measures?
∞ Payment plan
∞ Exemption from interest on arrears
∞ Remission of fines for non-payment
e. What conditions?
∞ Compliance with the conditions for filing declarations
∞ debts must not result from fraud
Support measures will be withdrawn in the event of:
∞ failure to comply with the payment plan granted, unless the debtor takes
timely contact with the administration
∞ occurrence of collective insolvency proceedings (bankruptcy, judicial reorganisation, …)
f. What steps?
Contact your bookkeeper for further details and the links to the correct documents for your region.
Social Security Contributions
Option 1. Postponement of Payment
Entrepreneurs in main occupation and assisting spouses may apply for deferral of payment of 1 year if they experience difficulties due to the coronavirus. You do not pay any surcharges or interest (in case of timely payment in 2021) and your rights will continue to accrue.
∞ 1st quarter 2020: payment date postponed from 31 March 2020 to 31 March 2021
∞ 2nd quarter 2020: payment date postponed from 30 June 2020 to 30 June 2021
Applications before 15/06/2020 for quarter 1
Applications before 15/06/2020 for quarter 2
How to apply:
Send your bookkeeper an e-mail with the following details and request a postponement:
– Surname and first name
– Place of residence
– Name and seat of your company
– Company number
– Professional activity in which you are active
Please note: direct debit customers must notify the bank themselves. If they fail to do so, social security contributions will still be credited in the event of postponement of payment.
The measure concerning the postponement by one year of the payment of social security contributions for the first two quarters of 2020, as well as the regularisation contributions due on 31 March 2020, is extended to ALL categories of self-employed workers (i.e. not only applicable to self-employed workers in their main profession and assisting spouses). In view of the economic impact of the emergency measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, the application for deferral of the first quarter 2020 contributions may be submitted until 15 June 2020.
Option 2: Reduction of Social Security Contribution
You can have your social contribution reduced to the legal thresholds when your income is reduced. Overview Thresholds: https://www.xerius.be/nl-be/zelfstandigen/sociale-zekerheid/drempelbedragen
Option 3: Temporary Financial Difficulties Exemption
You can request an exemption due to ‘temporary financial difficulties’ for the social security contributions of the 1st and 2nd quarter of 2020. If you want to apply for a waiver of your fees for these two quarters, we recommend that you do so before you receive the statement for the second quarter. An application for future quarters is not possible. This is only available to the full time self-employed and their and assisting spouses in the maxi statute.
If you receive a positive advice, you will not build up any pension rights for these two quarters (this is provisional and can be adjusted due to coronavirus), although your social security (health care) status will not be affected. Also keep in mind that you will have to have been active in this statute for at least 4 quarters. This too may be relaxed, but this is not yet clear.
For the time being, there are no simplified application forms and you have two options: submit directly to the government or as a customer of Xerius via this form. If you have a different social secretariat, please check their website for the relevant paperwork.
However, we are in favour of applying for a postponement of payment first. You can always apply for the exemption later (before the end of 2020).
(overbruggingsrecht or droit passerelle)
YES: ALL self-employed persons in main profession and assisting spouses in maxi statute.
NOT: Self-employed as a secondary profession, pensioners, student self-employed and self-employed persons with equal secondary profession.
Please note: this is considered as a replacement income and cannot be combined with any other benefit (during this break you may also NOT start working as an employee).
Starting date of the entrepreneur does not matter and it is also available to sole proprietors and company managers. The sector in which they are active does not matter either.
The Replacement Income can be combined with the Flemish Nuisance Allowance. If you want to take advantage of this, you must apply for it yourself. Replacement Income is paid out by your social insurance fund (Xerius, Acerta, Liantis, …).
Amount of Payment:
∞ Active in the hospitality industry (even if you do not close your business completely and still offer takeaway meals and close your business for at least one day).
∞ Other sectors (where you are obliged to close your business completely or partially due to the corona virus) and interrupt your activities for at least 7 consecutive days.
∞ Other sectors that close down as a precaution, or because they have too few customers.
They receive a benefit of 1,291.69 euros (or 1,614.10 euros in case of dependants) for either March or April, depending on which month you interrupt your activities for at least 7 consecutive days. Are your activities interrupted for at least 7 consecutive days in both months? Then you can get a replacement income in both March and April.
How to apply and when can you expect your payment?
Option 1: Send an e-mail to your social insurance fund and mention the following in the e-mail:
o Apply for a replacement income because of corona virus,
o your name, first name and place of residence,
o your customer number, which you will find on your statement or on the back of your identity card (your national registration number is also your customer number).
o your company number and the name and registered office of your company,
o the sector in which you are active and briefly outline the reason(s) why you had to interrupt the activities as a result of the coronavirus.
o the period of interruption: the date that you stop your activities and possibly the date that you resume your activities (the latter date is currently not yet estimable for most people, so it is not necessary to indicate this).
o the bank account number to which the payment may be made.
Also answer the following questions in your e-mail:
o Do you have at least one dependant (wife, cohabitant, parent, grandparent, child,…)?
o Do you exercise a professional activity during the cessation or interruption of your self-employed activity? Or are you still a mandatary or working partner in another company?
o Do you receive a replacement income during the period of interruption?
Option 2: Fill in the simplified application form for ‘coronavirus’ replacement income, sign and send it to your social insurance fund.
Please note: Application in both options must be done by yourself. Your accountant of course will assist you if you have any questions about this.
(hinderpremie or prime unique)
The Hindrance Premium is determined on the basis of the establishment unit of the entrepreneur and applies to forced closures of physical locations (excl. pick-up). There is only a premium of 4,000 euros. The premium of 2,000 euros has been abolished in Flanders. Brussels and Wallonia apply different rules (for the time being) – see further down.
– 1 establishment:
o 4,000 euros per forced closure and only for physical locations (excl. collection) – proof by declaration on honour
o Pay at least as main professional or 1 FTE as salary
– Multiple locations:
o You receive the Hindrance Premium for a maximum of 5 locations.
o Paying at least as a main professional or 1 FTE as an employee.
The Flemish Hindrance Premium can be applied for up to and including May 5, so you certainly have plenty of time to submit your application.
What do you need to have at hand?
∞ Your e-ID and your e-ID pin code (or your smartphone if you log on via itsme).
∞ An active Belgian account number of your company on which the premium can be paid (in IBAN format, i.e. consisting of 16 characters starting with BE,
followed by 2 digits and then the 12 digits of your account number)
∞ Check your normal opening days, as they were before the coronavirus measures
∞ Main or secondary profession
∞ In case of a secondary occupation: do you pay social security contributions like a main occupation? Only auxiliary professionals who pay the minimum contributions of a main professional are eligible.
∞ The website address (url) of your company if you have one
∞ Do you have multiple branches? Be sure to select the right branch for which you are applying for the premium.
∞ This premium is tax exempt.
∞ The further promotion of webshops has NO influence on the granting of the premium when a physical location is present.
∞ The Belfius card reader and probably also at other banks can be used as an E-ID reader.
∞ If you do not have an active branch in the KBO or if the position(s) is (are) not correct, you cannot apply for a nuisance bonus (this can possibly still be rectified via the Ondernemingsloket).
a. Tax freeze in Wallonia
For its part, the Walloon government has frozen all regional taxes related to the number of days that the businesses are closed, prorated to the number of days they are closed.
b. Closure Compensation
Compensation of 5,000 euros per closed company in Wallonia The Walloon Government grants a lump-sum compensation of 5,000 euros for each business that has closed or ceased operations during the period of containment. The sectors concerned are horeca, accommodation, travel agencies and reservation services, retail, as well as travel and provision of services (e.g. beauticians). An indemnity of 2,500 euros is also provided for companies with the activity is restricted, including hairdressers.
■ The information number 1890 remains available for entrepreneurs and Walloon independents.
The Brussels government, for its part, has decided to support the treasury of the companies affected through the granting of public guarantees on bank loans for a total of EUR 20 million. It also intends to strengthen support for companies in difficulty via the Centre for Enterprises in Difficulty (CED). Simplification and administrative benevolence towards the companies and businesses affected as well as the anticipation of the treatment and liquidation of economic aid to priority destination for the Horeca, cultural, hotel and event sectors are also applicable.
■ The information number 1819 centralizes all information for companies and entrepreneurs in Brussels.
Compensation Premium Entrepreneurs
As of last week, the Flemish government is providing an additional support measure for entrepreneurs who are not obliged to close down (and therefore cannot apply in conjunction with the Nuisance Premium), but who are still experiencing a large loss of turnover due to the Corona crisis. This is the Compensation Premium. They are still working on the application and correct modalities, for now you can find the latest information on the VLAIO website.
This new premium is aimed at companies and their suppliers who are allowed to continue working or shops that remain open but have a large loss of sales due to the restrictive measures, which can show that they have a loss of sales of -60% in the period between 15 March 2020 and 30 April compared to the same period last year.
For start-ups, a decrease in turnover of -60% compared to the financial plan laid down will be taken into account. NPOs are also eligible, provided that at least one person is employed full time.
Examples: companies in the events sector that also employ many freelancers; (para-) medical professions such as physiotherapists, dentists, psychologists or speech therapists who are only allowed to carry out urgent interventions; companies that provide essential food services such as praline shops or liquor traders, but still suffer a heavy loss of turnover due to lack of passage or tourists; painters or plumbers who are only allowed to carry out urgent repair work; farmers who work specifically for hotel and catering customers, etc….
Amount of Aid
∞ The aid includes a one-off compensation premium of €3,000;
∞ There is a maximum of 5 premiums per company if there are more than one operating seat per company.
∞ Self-employed persons in a secondary occupation, who pay social security contributions as a self-employed person in their main occupation due to the level of income, can also receive the compensation premium of € 3,000;
∞ Self-employed persons in secondary occupation who have an income between € 6,996.89 and € 13,993.78 can claim a compensation premium of € 1,500. This premium also applies to self-employed persons in a secondary occupation who are obliged to close, but does not apply to self-employed persons in a secondary occupation who combine this with a job as an employee of 80% or more.
More information is not yet available at time of publication and so we advise you to refer to the VLAIO website where the application will shortly be made available.
Under certain conditions, you can apply for temporary unemployment for the employees you can no longer employ full or part time due to the Corona crisis. By introducing this temporary unemployment benefit, you temporarily suspend the employee’s employment contract. The Belgian government has introduced a simplified procedure, which originally ran until 6 April but has since been extended until 31 May 2020. Please note that this is only one measure taken by the Belgian government and that there are still measures to which you may have recourse. Furthermore, we cannot stress enough that the Belgian government regularly adapts these measures.
Not every employer can claim this temporary unemployment. Only those employers who are directly affected by Covid-19, as a result of which the employees can no longer perform their duties at all or only partially, can make use of this specific procedure. Examples are: a shop has been closed, sales representatives can no longer visit customers and do not have enough tasks to perform at home, orders are no longer coming in,…
Not all employment contracts should be suspended. Only those employees who cannot work more or less because of their position are eligible for this. If, as an employer, you wish to apply for temporary unemployment, you can do so via a simplified procedure until 31 May 2020. This means that you let your Payroll Business Partner know which days the employees will work and which days they will be unemployed. Pro-Pay takes care of the necessary electronic declaration of these days of unemployment so that the NEO knows to which benefit the employee is entitled.
It is possible to suspend the employment contracts either completely (the employee no longer works) or partially (the employee still works one or more days per week). If partial unemployment is chosen, the employer determines how many days the employee can still work. The employees do not have to agree to this. Of course, they do have to be informed about the days they still have to work and which days they will be unemployed. This notification to the employees can take any form, an e-mail may be sufficient in some cases.
Workers who are temporarily unemployed must contact either their trade union (if they are affiliated to it) or the “Unemployment benefits fund” in order to open a file and obtain unemployment benefits. You can open a file at the “Unemployment benefits fund” online. The union or the help fund will then pay the unemployment benefits into the worker’s bank account on a monthly basis. Unemployment benefits amount to 70% of the gross monthly salary. However, the gross wage is limited to EUR 2,754.76. In addition, the unemployment office pays EUR 5.63 per day of unemployment. On both amounts 26.75% withholding tax is withheld.
In some sectors, there is an additional obligation to pay a supplement on top of this unemployment benefit. In addition, it is possible to pay a supplement voluntarily. This supplement can be granted free of social security contributions on condition that the total of the unemployment benefit + the supplement(s) does not exceed the taxable salary that the employee would have earned if he had worked.
If the employees are partially unemployed, they receive their normal salary for the days they work. Temporary unemployment days will be assimilated for pension purposes. Currently, there is no equivalence for the accrual of holidays and holiday pay, but according to various press releases, there would be a legislative initiative to put this on an equal footing.
With regard to the assimilation of end-of-year bonuses and other benefits granted at sectoral level, it will be necessary to examine what has been agreed within the Joint Committee. It cannot be ruled out that agreements will still be concluded in the sectors to assimilate this exceptional period to effective performance if this was not already the case.
Attention: if the employees only work at home and previously received an expense allowance because they had a mobile function, this expense allowance can no longer be granted. Instead, the government has increased the monthly reimbursement for office expenses (see further down).
The authorities grant a two-month deferment of payment of the withholding tax on earned income.
• Payment period withholding tax on earnings February 2020 extended to May 13, 2020
• Payment period withholding tax on earnings March 2020 extended to June 15, 2020
• Payment period withholding tax on earnings April 2020 extended to July 15, 2020
• Payment period withholding tax on earnings 1st quarter 2020 extended to June 15, 2020
In addition to this deferral, you can also apply to receive an exemption from default interest or remission of fines, or request a repayment plan. Such an application must be submitted before June 30, 2020. Note: this does not happen automatically! Contact your Payroll Business Partner for assistance.
As far as the employer’s contributions for social security are concerned, different support measures apply. Companies that are closed on government order can benefit from an automatic deferment of payment of social security contributions until December 15, 2020.
Companies that are not obliged to close but that suffer from the Corona crisis economically can apply for a deferment of payment of social security contributions until December 15, 2020 provided they submit a motivated application file with the social security authorities. Apart from the deferment of payment, an amicable payment plan is another option offered by the NSSO to companies in difficulties.
Office Costs and NSSO
Employees who work from home on a structural and regular basis can receive compensation from their employer for this. Since the costs related to working from home are relatively small and difficult to prove, the NSSO accepts that these costs are estimated on a flat-rate basis. For a number of costs, including the compensation for homeworking, the NSSO itself has fixed lump sums, as well as the conditions that apply to the granting of these lump sums.
The fixed compensation that the NSSO uses for office costs covers the costs of heating, electricity, small office equipment, insurances,… The allowance may be granted to employees who do not have a workplace with the employer or – if they do have a workplace with the employer – when their position shows that they work from home on a regular basis.
Employees who previously did not work from home, but are now forced to do so by the Covid-19 measures, can also be granted this compensation without the employer having to conclude a formal teleworking agreement with the employee. This is also possible if the employee works partly from home and is temporarily unemployed.
In addition to this maximum amount of €129.48, the employer can also compensate the following matters on a lump-sum basis:
∞ €20 per month if the employee uses his/her own PC for professional purposes;
∞ €20 per month if the employee uses his/her private internet connection for professional purposes.
Of course, these lump sums can only be granted if the office and internet costs are not reimbursed to the employee in any other way. Please note that the NSSO also uses other fixed amounts for forms of teleworking and homeworking besides the fixed amount for office costs, which are not discussed in this newsletter.
The Tax Authorities
The reimbursement of €129.48 for office expenses can be granted free of social security contributions if the conditions for granting the allowance have been met. The tax authorities do not have a similar official position regarding a fixed amount for office costs, but often follow the position of the NSSO on this matter.
However, if you want certainty from a tax point of view about the application of a fixed amount for the reimbursement of office costs, a ruling must be requested from the tax administration. The ruling service of the tax authorities has provided a simplified procedure specifically for obtaining a ruling for the reimbursement of telework during the corona crisis.
Fragomen has devised a #COVID19 Impact Statement for each country in the Benelux, relating to right to Travel, Work and Reside. These will be housed on the Fragomen website, and will be regularly updated to take account of emerging government guidance and the changing landscape. They take a risk based approach where policy is not fully developed, and address the business impact of government closures and delays.
The Impact Statement answers all type of questions employers have as they look to protect their workforce and ensure compliance with immigration regulations. It includes travel restrictions, current application processing, delays to start dates, working from home policies, unpaid leave or temporary unemployment, changes to the employment contract and salary, work and residence permit renewals and many other items you need to consider from an immigration perspective.
Please consult Fragomen if you would like access to these documents. In the meantime, please find below a broad description of the current situation in Belgium.
General Situation in Belgium
• Travel ban: until 19 April (extension possible) with limited exceptions such as for those whose travel to Belgium is deemed essential (such as frontier workers) and nationals normally residing in Belgium, holding a Belgian residence permit and returning home.
• Regional Employment Offices & Foreigners Office: still processing all application types, processing times may experience some delays.
• In-country appointments: Town Halls are continuing to provide essential services. We recommend consulting the website of the Town Hall or contacting them via phone or email prior to visiting to confirm whether an appointment should be made or whether it is possible to arrange via email.
Given the current situation, the Belgian authorities have instated some “leniency” measures:
• There seems to be flexibility with respect to single permit supporting documents that are difficult to obtain due to COVID-19 such as medical certificates and police clearance documents (these remain mandatory but can be provided at a later stage).
• If an assignee cannot return home and risks becoming illegal in Belgium, they can exceptionally apply for an extended stay and work due to reasons of force majeur.
• Work or single permits allow working from home without a negative effect on the validity of the authorization, provided the working from home measures are temporary and due to the current situation surrounding COVID-19.
As you can see, the situation is highly complex but Belgium remains open for immigration processing, albeit on a limited basis.
Fragomen also wants to confirm that for individual cases, solutions are available and they are happy to help determine what can be done for each individual impacted by this situation. Fragomen can also assist with looking at your broader European workforce, both for urgent solutions now and preparing to remobilise, while equally addressing posted worker and social security compliance, as well as cost saving strategies.
Finally, Fragomen has invested thousands of hours and manpower in creating a unique microsite on the immigration impacts of COVID-19, for which there is no charge to access. This site is updated on a daily basis by the Fragomen Knowledge Team in conjunction with Fragomen legal experts around the world and includes a daily updated tracker including more than 135 countries’ specific COVID-19 policies.
If you have not had a chance to visit the site lately, please access our free microsite at https://www.fragomen.com/about/news/immigration-update-coronavirus