NAV overwhelmed by benefits seekers

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Norway’s state welfare agency NAV has been overwhelmed by an onslaught of applications from laid-off workers seeking temporary unemployment benefits. More than 45,000 have streamed in just since Monday, when employers suffering from the Corona virus crisis began laying off staff in earnest.

NAV is already under huge pressure following its violation of EU/EEA regulations and wrongful prosecution of alleged welfare cheats. Now it’s being hit with tens of thousands of applications for unemployment benefits from workers laid off because of business lost during the Corona crisis. PHOTO: Arbeids- og sosialdepartement

“There’s enormous demand,” Elisabeth Steen of a NAV employees’ labour organization (NTL Nav) told newspaper Dagsavisen Monday evening. At that point, around 10,000 applications for benefits had arrived in NAV offices since the government and Parliament agreed Monday morning to at least temporarily pick up the costs of 18 days of full salary up to NOK 600,000 (USD 60,000) after a lay-off. Employers pay the first two days. After 20 days, benefits will be reduced to 80 percent of earnings up to NOK 300,000 and 62.4 percent of earnings over NOK 300,000, up to NOK 600,000.

By midday on Tuesday, NAV was faced with processing more than 45,000 applications, and the number was expected to rise. That compares to around 100 applications on a “normal” day before the Corona crisis set in. Among those issuing layoff notices so far, because their revenues have evaporated, are Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), Norwegian Air, the hotel chains Nordic Choice and Thon, plus thousands of small businesses that have been shut down by Corona containment measures including hair salons, theaters and cinemas, opticians, exercise studios, restaurants, cafés and bars.

‘Very difficult’
“It’s very difficult to respond to everyone calling in to us now,” Cathrine Stavnes, a county director of NAV in Nordland, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday. While benefits applications can be submitted online, many upset laid-off workers are calling NAV with questions on lots of Corona-related quarantine, sick pay and unemployment issues. NAV handles all welfare payments in Norway, from pensions to disability benefits.

“There are also a lot of people visiting our offices,” Stavnes told NRK. “Practice varies from office to office whether they’re keeping the doors open (during the Corona crisis, when Norwegians have been told to stay home to hinder the spread of the virus), but we want as much contact as possible to occur only online.” She said most people want help in registering themselves, “but there are many answers to all their questions on our website.” (external link to NAV).

There’s also been a wave of companies contacting NAV because of their lay-off plans. NAV has also registered 12,200 sick leaves related to the Corona virus, 4,300 of them coming in on Monday alone, according to news bureau NTB.

First scandal, now a national trauma
NAV employees are already struggling with the agency’s biggest scandal ever, in which NAV misinterpreted EØS/EEA rules and wrongly prosecuted thousands of people who received benefits while abroad. NAV must refund fines and benefits withheld from Norwegians who were unjustly branded as welfare cheats, some of whom even went to jail. The European Free Trade Association’s surveillance authority, ESA, ruled last week, as a state commission investigating the scandal had earlier, that NAV did not operate in line with EEA/EU law that provides free movement among EU/EFTA member nations. Norway, probably in violation since it joined the EEA in 1994, must now respond to the ESA before it files treaty violation charges later this spring.

Now NAV not only needs to continue correcting past mistakes but also process benefits for tens of thousands of Norwegian who’ve suddenly lost their jobs because of Corona closures. NAV must also adapt to the new, more liberal regulations and benefits approved on Monday. NAV workers also must brace for thousands  of more applications in the weeks and months ahead. Employers must report in the numbers of their workers being laid off, and then the employees themselves must register to receive benefits.

“The pressure is very high right now, and we have lines of people waiting for service,” Stavnes told NRK. NAV is trying to boost staffing within its divisions that handle unemployment benefits and sick pay.

“We’re asking the public to be patient with us,” Steen of the NAV employees’ organization told Dagsavisen, noting that many NAV employees were also working from home offices during the Corona outbreak. “We’re working as fast as we can.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund