UIF indifferent to workers’ plight

In the financial year ended in March this year, the Unemployment Insurance Fund paid out slightly more than R7-million to 708 000 beneficiaries. Agnes Sithole* was not one of them.

Her baby girl is nearing her first birthday, but Sithole has yet to receive her payout from the UIF for which she applied in December last year while on maternity leave.

When she had received no payment by April this year, she realised something was amiss and called the department of labour, only to be told some or other document was missing and she must apply again. She did so but has yet to receive any money, or any answers.

“I don’t understand. Even now I try to call them, but, even then, they are confused.”

Despite having contributed to the fund for many years and anticipating a pay-out of R11 000 while she was away from work, Sithole’s family have had to rely on her husband’s income to get them through. Sithole has since returned to her factory job after four months of financially difficult maternity leave. “I’m fed up,” she says.

She has been defeated by the countless trips to the UIF office and the airtime wasted from being kept on hold while trying to get help from the call centre. “It cost me money for transport, money for calls, and I didn’t get anything … I don’t know which step I can take now.”

According to the department, the mandate of the UIF is to contribute to the alleviation of poverty by providing effective short-term unemployment insurance to all workers who qualify for benefits.

Money is not the problem. Earlier this year, the accumulated surplus was so large – R90-billion ­– that the treasury proposed a tax holiday on the insurance. In the 2015 UIF annual report, recently released by the department, a reported R16-billion was collected in the financial year, up from the previous financial year’s R15.3-billion. Benefit payments grew by 0.08% but investments grew by 20.24%.

The process to claim can be arduous, as evidenced by Sithole’s experience.

A look through the online customer service site Hello Peter shows a long list of similar frustrations, seemingly concentrated in Gauteng: documents have to be constantly resubmitted, the department is unresponsive, and payouts never happen.

Electronic submission, known as uFiling, is now available and some beneficiaries have found it to be more efficient.

Nastassja and Luke Marescia believe that they were able to receive the full payout owed to them within five months because they had gone the electronic route.

“I know of two other people I work with, that have been back at work for almost a year after their maternity leave, and they have yet to see one cent from UIF,” Luke Marescia says. “They, however, applied directly at the department of labour and not on uFiling, so I would say it’s more beneficial to do everything electronically.”

But others complain that uFiling is a “waste of time” and that they have had to go in to the department’s offices anyway.

When Taryn Smith* tried to claim for unemployment at the department’s Randburg office, she was required to produce a marriage certificate and then to change her name to her married name at her bank.

“So I did that. I went back and filled in the forms again and, well, I never went back and I never got my payout. I truly just gave up. It was hours I spent and nothing ever came of it. I started to feel like I was begging so I just left it.”

Frederick Venter, who submitted his claim to the Boksburg office in June, is not prepared to give up so easily. “Every day I send an email. Every second day I go to the offices.”

Upon request, he has resubmitted his documents four times in the past six weeks.

He has not had a response. Even complaints sent to the Gauteng provincial offices have gone unanswered, he says.

“I have got so much debt that I need to try to settle, I don’t know what to tell my debtors any more … I rely on family and friends to help me at the moment.”

A source in the department says they knew of problems in some regions of Gauteng and described it as heartbreaking to see people fighting for months just to get “the money that they deserve”.

An internal processing system known as Virtual Office, of which one portal is uFiling, has caused problems at some of the offices, the source says.

Virtual Office was touted by the department as saving time and cost, but the source says it has caused internal delays.

“They have to scan all the documents that are relevant. It’s the responsibility of the labour centre to make sure they are loaded on to the system. If you load documents today, they will only appear on the following day. But sometimes the scan has to be done many times before it shows up.”

Then to have the claim approved by the processing centre can also take an extraordinarily long time, the source says.

There is also a surplus of R65-billion in the department’s workers’ Compensation Fund, says Ian Ollis, the Democratic Alliance spokesperson on labour. “The facts are that the Compensation Fund is almost in complete meltdown. So, in comparison to the Compensation Fund, UIF is working better.”

The Compensation Fund covers claims from civil servants for injuries sustained on duty or for occupation-related illnesses.

Some offices are inefficient when dealing with people’s queries, says Ollis. “People have to return because forms have gone missing, or the employer hasn’t filled it in correctly. They don’t give feedback when it hasn’t been processed; they [the employees] have to go in to find out whether there is any progress. And often there isn’t.

“They often sit in queues for hours. I have seen sometimes people who sit from eight in the morning until 3pm without being served.”

There is a 14.7% vacancy rate in the UIF, but that is not the problem, Ollis says. “The problem is the unskilled staff who are not sufficiently trained or not sufficiently capable. If you can afford it, appointing an agent to submit and follow up your claim can make life easier.”

Esmé van der Merwe, of UIF Matters, an agency that offers benefit claims assistance, says: “The fund is strong at the moment, but people don’t know how to claim from it.”

She says the agency has the advantage of having worked on the department’s system and often knows when and how to submit to make the process easier.

“For us, the electronic submission process has been a bit better than the manual submission has been. [Still,] we tell our clients to prepare for an eight- to 12-week waiting period.”

UIF Matters advises people to make arrangements with creditors, if need be.

Ollis says the DA’s view is to provide a UIF payment holiday in light of the massive surplus.

This was proposed by the finance minister earlier this year but shelved following opposition from labour unions.

What remains on the table now, as proposed in a Bill to be approved by Parliament, is that the UIF payout period will be extended from eight months to a maximum of 365 days.

*Not their real names.

No backlog, get your papers in order, says fund

Makhosonke Buthelezi, communication and marketing director for the Unemployment Insurance Fund, said the average waiting time for a first payment was 42 days and current payout patterns did not indicate that there are any notable backlogs.

He said the fund is committed to finalise all completed applications in 35 calendar days, provided the required documents are timeously submitted. “Incomplete applications, particularly relating to declarations from employers and support documents from applicants, remains a key challenge, thus creating delays in payments.”

Buthelezi denied Virtual Office contributed to slowing down the application process. “There are isolated incidents where Virtual Office would be slow, especially in remote labour centres where the bandwidth is not sufficient and when load-shedding occurs,” he said. “Scanning is necessarily been done by the officials during official hours and the uploading or integration is done outside peak hours and within 24 hours.”

He said the fund is encouraging employers to file their declarations electronically and gradually converting them to the uFiling portal.

However, claimants need to ensure that their employment history is updated at all times, and that previous employers have terminated them from their systems upon leaving their employment.

Asked about why the fund was in surplus, Buthelezi said: “National treasury has implemented strict cost containment measures during the past years [and these] were implemented by the fund and [this] has largely contributed to the surplus.”

If a client is dissatisfied with the service at a regional office, they have the right to speak to the supervisor of the particular section. If still aggrieved, they can insist on being referred to the manager or regional head.

The matter can also be escalate to the UIF head office through the call centre on 012 337 1680 or toll free line 0800 843 843, Buthelezi said.

A revised UIF Bill is expected to be approved by Parliament this year and aims to improve unemployment insurance benefits for beneficiaries.

This is anticipated to reduce the fund’s surpluses and accumulated surpluses, he said.

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