Employers should be obliged to allow their employees to work from home – but they should be able to refuse. This runs counter to the purpose of fighting a pandemic and does not fit into (criminal) occupational safety. A guest post.
Berlin The family company Behn has been running a beverage wholesaler in Schleswig-Holstein since 1892 and produces popular spirits such as “Kleiner Feigling” or “Küstennebel”.
There is a great demand for alcoholic beverages during the corona crisis. But Rüdiger Behn, who runs the company with his brother, is still worried, also because a large part of the turnover is accounted for by the catering trade. And with the Corona aid, the company fell through the rust completely.
As an indirectly affected company, it could only benefit if sales had slumped by at least 80 percent. Rüdiger Behn is correspondingly bad at talking about politics: “Minister of Economic Affairs Altmaier broke his promise not to leave any company out in the rain,” says the entrepreneur. That undermines the credibility of the policy.
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AEmployers should fear sanctions in the future if they forbid their employees to work from home, although this would be possible in the opinion of the control authorities. This is provided by new plans by Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD), which he has prepared for the federal-state talks on tightened contact restrictions this Tuesday. “I am in favor of us doing this with more commitment when it comes to the question of the offer,” Heil told journalists on Monday. The Greens had previously made similar demands. Trade unionists were skeptical.
According to the plans, companies would be legally obliged to offer their employees to work from home, if the task does not preclude this. However, the employees would not be obliged to accept the offer if they could. He appealed to them to accept such offers, Heil explained. The currently applicable legal basis only permitted binding obligations to be borne by the employer. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Employer President Rainer Dulger and the Chairman of the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), Reiner Hoffmann, appealed to employers and employees on Friday to switch to home office.
Heil initially did not provide details of the planned regulations. Should Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and the Prime Ministers decide on his proposals, he would implement them “immediately” by means of a statutory instrument. As key words, Heil cited a tightening of the Sars-Cov2 occupational safety standard, which has been in force since April and which is subject to control by the employers’ liability insurance association, and the new “Occupational Safety and Health Control Act”. In addition to strict new regulations for the meat industry, this also contains stricter rules for all industries. Heil admitted that “an unbelievable number of companies” are doing a lot to enable their employees to work from home. “But we have some areas in which this is not offered arbitrarily,” he criticized. However, there is apparently no more detailed information on where and to what extent this applies.
Politically, a survey on behalf of the Hans Böckler Foundation is often cited, according to which allegedly fewer employees now work from home than in spring 2020. In fact, the informative value of this data is very limited: The survey took place in November and came to the conclusion that at that time – in November – 14 percent of employees were working from home, compared to 27 percent in April. There is currently no information about the degree of widespread use of home office in December or January, the Böckler Foundation announced on Monday at the request of the FAZ.
Union and employer representatives were irritated by the plans and the course of the debate. In relation to the industry, he “did not really understand”, said the chairman of the chemical union IG BCE, Michael Vassiliadis. In areas like the pharmaceutical industry, working from home is simply not possible. “It’s a little unworldly,” he said. The DGB chairman of Baden-Württemberg, Martin Kunzmann, also warned that an excessively strict home office requirement would also be counterproductive for employees. Mobile working does not automatically mean that this also happens under good conditions, said Kunzmann of the German press agency. Employer President Rainer Dulger warned on Monday that a legal obligation contradicts “in spirit” the appeal of the Federal President ”on Friday.
In the Union it is now clear: the die has been cast in favor of Armin Laschet as the new federal chairman. Enough to talk about for Anne Will and her guests. Markus Söder is determined – but evades a question.
It was not easy, the election of the NRW Prime Minister as party leader, the clarification of the K question, strategic decisions of the Union, the further course of the GroKo, the upcoming federal-state conference on pandemic control and the dangers of virus mutants under a discussion hat bring to. Although the round – at least in the political ranking – was illustrious.
Saskia Esken (SPD), party leader
Volker Bouffier (CDU), Prime Minister of Hesse
Markus Söder (CSU), party chairman and Bavarian Prime Minister
Robert Habeck (B’90 / The Greens), party chairman
Christian Lindner (FDP), party chairman
For Bouffier, his party conference was “fantastic, great”. Will wanted to know more from him whether Söder was now out of the race for the candidacy for chancellor under the strengthened Laschet. The Union can only be successful if it “puts its full weight on the ramp,” said the Hessian. This meant the upcoming state elections, for example in Rhineland-Palatinate or Baden-Württemberg. The K question will be clarified after Easter. It must have seemed a bit strange to the Hessian country father that the object of Will’s eagerness to question was himself in the group.
Söder, however, evaded. Fighting the pandemic, consolidating the Union’s claim to leadership in the German party structure, clarifying questions about the future – “I am firmly determined,” said the Franconian on the subject, but not on the question of K. It was precisely that with the Union’s decision on direction that did not work out at its party congress Habeck summed up. Friedrich Merz had “nodded around” too much after his own election defeat. In this context, the Greens renewed his realization that the Union was overrated. Before the pandemic, Angela Merkel was ticked off as a leader. Now Corona made the “impression of unity “emerged.
The Union has no answers to ecological challenges, questions of digitization or integration. In the round, Lindner declared himself to be the NRW coalition partner of the FDP in Persona Laschets. The liberal had to emphasize, however, that there would be “intensified discussions about the processing of the debts” that had been accumulated by fighting the pandemic in the middle of the year. Not to mention topics such as economic growth, the labor market situation and digitization.
The company is looking forward to the federal-state meeting on Tuesday with excitement. Söder and Bouffier revealed what many already suspected: an extension of the lockdown is imminent. But is it also tightened in the depth of the restrictions, as for example the SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach demands? Then the group painted what felt like a united picture: Shutting down the economy completely is not on the agenda. Curfews are an absolute no-go for Lindner, because they are constitutionally questionable.
The liberal reiterated his criticism that these things were discussed at federal-state level and not in parliament. Söder emphasized that “nobody wants an endless loop (of restrictions)”. In Bavaria they already meet all the requirements that the federal and state governments have made to combat pandemics. It is more about “the inner attitude of wanting to fight the pandemic” – and in doing so he made the reluctant national fathers in other federal states responsible. Rather, the discussants put on the table to force vaccination and tests as quickly as possible, to demand effective FFP2 masks and to obtain clarity about virus mutations.
In addition, the group discussed the legal requirement for companies to enable their employees to work from home or to explain reasons why this is not possible. Esken in particular criticized the fact that the Union was now jumping on the bandwagon, but had defended itself months ago against the initiative of its party friend, Labor Minister Hubertus Heil. Söder did not move away from this, but brought tax incentives for companies into play. Habeck cut into the notch and emphasized that the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Act already provides for the legal right to work from home.
Especially Bouffier countered. That is correct, but the federal states have to cope with the bureaucratic effort involved in implementation. The Hessian caused astonishment at the presenter with his “composure”, as she called it. For example, the Union man had previously spoken of the fact that retirement homes would be tested across the board. Will and Esken shouted “no” in almost unison.
With a view to Tuesday, Bouffier said that one had to wait for the scientific findings and the associated practical help – also from Great Britain – on the mutations. Will looked a little desperate: With an average of one thousand corona deaths a day, Germany has now reached the level of the USA. Söder nodded, Bouffier called his attitude “prudence”.
That came from Habeck. “Then a sound creeps in like: We have this under control and you angry people don’t obey. That’s not good.” He was referring to a tendency among political decision-makers to place the blame for not falling infection rates almost entirely on society. It should rather be about promoting the acceptance of measures and the use of alternative means. For example, by providing all sections of the population with effective FFP-2 masks in a rich country like Germany. The humility that still existed in politics in the spring is missing.
But what about the home office in practice? The corona pandemic has certainly made this way of working widespread. This was shown, for example, by a short survey conducted by the Bavarian Research Institute for Digital Transformation (bidt) among around 1,500 professional internet users. In addition, acceptance on the part of employers and employees has increased since then.
Accordingly, the corona crisis in an overall view has a lasting impact on the change in the world of work and the digital transformation. The Hans Böckler Foundation also confirmed the same in a representative survey in June 2020. At that time, 16% of those surveyed stated that they worked exclusively or mainly in the home office. A share of 17% split daily work between being in the office and working at home. In November, however, the number of those who work almost exclusively in the home office fell to 14%. New approaches in the digital world of work will therefore not only redefine the place of work, but also pose challenges in terms of working hours and the reconciliation with family life.
Berlin Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) has urgently appealed to employers to allow home offices wherever possible. “This is not just any appeal, but a very clear message from the federal and state governments to the economy,” said the SPD politician in an interview with the Handelsblatt.
Many companies acted responsibly. But there are also those who arbitrarily refused to work on the move. “That is irresponsible,” said Heil.
The request to work from home if possible is also directed at the employees – even if he understands that many would like to see their colleagues again. But it is a question of responsibility, and the employees are also deceived.
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Hartz IV could soon change fundamentally and become more generous. The system, also called basic security or unemployment benefit II, serves as a safety net to secure a livelihood.
It has been controversial since it was introduced in 2005 by the then red-green federal government. With a view to the federal elections in September, the parties have first major change plans. And already now, Federal Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) wants to enforce a new bill that will defuse the system. An overview.
In the wake of the pandemic, access to Hartz IV was simplified, among other things, to help the many self-employed solo workers who are struggling with declining income. According to the will of the Minister of Labor, core elements of this regulation are to be retained permanently.
The corresponding draft law provides that in the first two years of the Hartz IV subscription, so-called “insignificant” assets and rental costs are not checked for appropriateness. Savings of up to 60,000 euros (plus 30,000 euros for each additional household member) would therefore initially not have to be touched.
“Anyone who is temporarily looking for work and is covered by the basic security must be able to rely on it and have the security of not having to worry about their savings and housing for the time being,” explains the ministry in a fact sheet. In “Spiegel” Heil had said: “The basic security should become a social citizen’s benefit, for which nobody has to be ashamed who needs it.”
In addition, the sanctions for the long-term unemployed are now to be permanently limited by law. Since a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in November 2019, Hartz IV recipients who miss appointments or refuse jobs may only be sanctioned to a limited extent.
The standard rate can only be reduced by up to 30 percent. So far, this has only been regulated by instructions from the Ministry and the Federal Employment Agency (BA). According to Heils plans, under no circumstances should anyone have to fear that the housing costs will be affected by reduced benefits. Stricter rules for under-25-year-olds should be dropped entirely. Those who do further training should receive a bonus of 75 euros per month.
At their party congress at the end of 2019, the Social Democrats had already decided on the demand to overcome Hartz IV. The SPD proposals for this went far beyond the reform that was now planned. In the draft law, additional expenditure by the federal government, municipalities and the BA is estimated at around 550 million euros.
Heil’s move met with rejection from the coalition partner. The Union is ready to talk to extend the special corona regulations if necessary, said the CDU social expert Peter Weiß. It is currently planned to expire at the end of March.
“But we still stand by the principle of ‘support and demand’ and also reject the expiry of these special regulations,” he said. “A creeping introduction of an unconditional basic income is not possible with us.” Because this would devalue work and the placement in work would be less attractive.
A lump sum payment for all citizens is not provided for in the salvation draft. However, critics see the reform proposals as steps in this direction. Pascal Kober, social policy spokesman for the FDP parliamentary group, also described the waiver of sanctions and the increase in benefits as “introducing the unconditional basic income through the back door”.
There is also criticism about the burden on taxpayers. Holger Schäfer from the employer-related Institute of the German Economy (IW) is particularly critical of the suspension of the housing cost review. This is justifiable in the pandemic, but otherwise not.
“If in doubt, the taxpayer would otherwise have to finance very expensive rents,” said the labor economist. “It would hardly be possible to convey to him if the recipient of a welfare benefit resides in a four-room apartment, but he can only afford two rooms himself.”
Changes go into the money for taxpayers: For the year 2021 alone, the federal government is earmarking 23.4 billion euros for unemployment benefit II. Together with the costs for heating and rent, integration measures in the labor market and administrative expenses, around 45 billion euros are planned.
However, the CDU said earlier that it did not want the receipt of state benefits to mean that owner-occupied residential property had to be given up. The legal regulations on asset utilization and on protective assets will be “revised, adjusted and changed so that recipients of state social benefits can continue to live in their own home”.
However, Heil’s advance does not go far enough, left leader Katja Kipping. She is committed to replacing Hartz IV with a “minimum income guarantee above the poverty line” without any sanctions.
The Greens, in turn, have just presented details of their own Hartz IV alternative, with which they are going into the federal election campaign: the “guarantee”. There should no longer be any sanctions and the standard rate should be gradually increased to 600 euros per month. At 446 euros, it is currently significantly lower for single people without children.
The asset check is to be omitted, the information provided by those affected will only be checked in justified cases. The partner’s income should no longer be taken into account. The deputy group leader Anja Hajduk put the annual cost of the reform at a low double-digit billion amount.
In perspective, however, the Greens want even more. At the party congress in November, the delegates voted against the will of the board of directors to “orient themselves towards the guiding principle of an unconditional basic income” according to the basic program.
At the AfD, Heil’s initiative met with rejection. It is a “worsening improvement of the Hartz IV system,” said René Springer, labor market policy spokesman for the AfD parliamentary group. It leads to more recipients and a higher burden on taxpayers.
“In order to avoid false incentives to immigrate into the social security system, the principle of ‘benefits in kind before cash benefits’ must apply to asylum seekers,” said Springer. He also wants to further develop Hartz IV so that additional earnings are more worthwhile.
The FDP has specific criticism of the previous limits on additional earnings. Social policy expert Kober explains: Hartz IV recipients could keep the first 100 euros, but those who have an income of over 100 and up to 1000 euros would have to give 80 percent of each euro. With a mini-job that pays 450 euros per month, that leaves only 170 euros in the end.
“It can’t stay that way,” says Kober. In the long term, he would like to summarize Hartz IV with child allowance and housing benefit. The CDU is also striving for a reform of income accounting. “We are calling for a reform of the imputation rules in order to encourage step-by-step withdrawals from drawing benefits,” the party said.
Experts do not consider a radical system change, for example towards an unconditional basic income (UBI), to be likely in the short term. Overall, Hartz IV is an “effective form of basic security,” says IW economist Schäfer.
One cannot deny that the labor market situation has improved significantly since its introduction – “even if it is difficult to prove a causal connection here,” says Schäfer.
From the point of view of Jürgen Schupp from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), a system change could have some advantages. For example, a basic income could alleviate existential fears. However, numerous questions would have to be clarified, such as the amount and funding.
DIW itself has started a long-term BGE study with the Mein Grundeinkommen association. Schupp has one wish for the next legislative period: that a study commission of the German Bundestag “Welfare State 2030” be set up. According to him, this should take stock – both with a view to the future viability of the contribution-financed system and possible alternatives such as a UBI.
Federal Labor Minister Hubertus Heil has initiated a debate about the future of this social benefit with new reform plans for the Hartz IV laws. The SPD politician wants to significantly defuse the rules for the long-term unemployed. His bill, the the Süddeutsche Zeitung is available, provides, among other things, in the first two years of moving into Hartz IV, not to check how big the apartment of the person concerned is. Assets of up to 60,000 euros should also not be touched during this time.
During the corona crisis, the government suspended these tests in order to quickly help those who had lost their existence with the outbreak of the pandemic. However, this regulation expires at the end of March. Heil wants to establish this “simplified access” to the basic security now permanently: “I want that people do not have to worry about their apartment and their savings if they get basic security,” said the Minister of Labor Süddeutsche Zeitung. “It’s also about more respect for life’s work.”
In addition, Heil also wants to lay down how the job centers will deal with uncooperative Hartz IV recipients in the future. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 2019 that Hartz IV cuts of more than 30 percent were unconstitutional. Since then, the old sanction practice has already been defused by instructions from the Ministry of Labor and the Federal Employment Agency. In the corona pandemic, there were also fewer and fewer sanctions anyway. Now Heil wants to regulate this maximum reduction of 30 percent permanently by law. Sanctions should be possible if those affected commit “repeated breaches of duty” or “failure to report”. However, “extraordinary hardship” should be avoided. In addition, particularly severe sanctions for under 25-year-olds have been argued for for years. According to Heil’s plans, this should no longer exist in the future.
Heil’s advance can also be traced back to resolutions of the SPD in 2019. At that time, his party had decided on a new welfare state concept with which it wants to leave the rigors of the Agenda 2010 policy of its former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder behind.
In the CDU / CSU parliamentary group, Heil’s long-term plan is already encountering resistance. She continues to stand by the principle of “promote and demand” and therefore reject “an extension of these special regulations”, said the labor market and social policy spokesman for the CDU / CSU, Peter Weiß, at the weekend of the German Press Agency (dpa). “A creeping introduction of an unconditional basic income is not possible with us. This means that work is devalued and placement in work is largely less attractive.” The FDP expressed itself similarly. “The waiver of sanctions and the increase in benefits are the introduction of the unconditional basic income through the back door,” said FDP social politician Pascal Kober.
BUnemployment Minister Hubertus Heil wants to reform the Hartz IV basic security by the middle of the year. According to a draft law, the SPD politician proposes that recipients of unemployment benefit II waive an examination of whether the housing costs are reasonable in the first two years. Likewise, assets up to 60,000 euros should not be taken into account.
And that’s not all: According to the draft, benefit cuts should be limited to a maximum of 30 percent from July if a job offer is rejected. There is also a monthly training bonus of 75 euros.
For the reform, additional expenditure by the federal government, local authorities and the Federal Employment Agency is estimated at around 550 million euros. According to information from the ministry, the project is still in its infancy and has not yet received the green light from the Chancellery for the departmental coordination in the government.
With the draft law, Heil wants to implement, among other things, a decision by the Federal Constitutional Court, which in November 2019 had declared the Hartz IV benefit cuts to be partially unconstitutional. The SPD politician goes well beyond that with the proposal to spare assets and rental costs in the first two years. This would mean that Heil would continue the simplifications that apply in the corona pandemic and that expire at the end of March 2021.
Heil also wants to put the agreements between job centers and the unemployed on placement in the labor market on a new basis. The previous integration agreement with obligations for jobseekers is to be replaced by a “non-legally binding cooperation plan”. This would strengthen “personal responsibility and the relationship of trust with the integration and placement specialist”.
Ghe black-red government coalition has only just enforced a ban on temporary work and work contracts in meat processing plants. Labor Minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) is now tackling the next legislative package aimed at strengthening workers’ rights. Among other things, he wants to introduce more protection against dismissal for employees who set up a works council in their company: There were increasing reports that “employers are using drastic means to prevent the establishment of works councils,” says the new draft law. Therefore, “the protection against dismissal to secure the elections to the works council will be improved”.
The project is part of a 29-page set of paragraphs that is available to the FAZ. It bears the title “Works Council Strengthening Act” and is also intended to give works councils more say in matters of digitization – for example on the question of the conditions under which so-called mobile work (“home office”) may take place.
The works councils should also be able to systematically have a say in how new systems with artificial intelligence must be designed if the company wants to introduce them. And they should also be able to call in their own experts, whose remuneration the employer must pay.
With the protection against dismissal, the SPD minister is taking up a demand that trade unionists have been making for many years: employees who want to establish a new works council should enjoy increased protection against dismissal as early as the preparatory phase. So far, the special protection against dismissal for works councils only applies if an employee is a member of the electoral board for the planned works council election. However, anyone who runs for the electoral board and can be identified as the initiator of the establishment of a works council does not yet enjoy this protection.
The background to this are reports from employee representatives that employers who were hostile to the works council often sabotaged such efforts at an early stage by putting the employees concerned under pressure and threatening them with dismissal. The union-related Hans Böckler Foundation once asked 160 union secretaries about such experiences. They knew to report about 221 companies in which the employer hindered works council elections. In more than 140 cases, employers sabotaged the appointment of the electoral board. Candidates were fired in almost 50 cases.
Surveys by the Institute for Employment Research (IAB) have also shown that the number of works councils is falling. According to this, almost every second employee was represented by a works council at the turn of the millennium, in 2016 it was only a little more than 40 percent. Since larger companies in particular have such representations, the proportion of companies with a works council is much lower – depending on the survey, it is around 10 percent.
There is no obligation to set up works councils. According to the letters of the Works Constitution Act, however, they should actually be the rule: In companies with at least five employees, “works councils are elected” has always been its first sentence. In order to make this more valid, Heil’s draft now provides, among other things: “Employees who invite employees to a works, electoral or board meeting or who apply for the appointment of an electoral board in court”, receive “special protection in addition to protection against ordinary dismissals before extraordinary dismissals “. In addition, the simplified electoral process for smaller companies should be possible in the future up to a size of 200 instead of the previous 100 employees.
Further innovations in the draft law are also intended to expand the influence of works councils on companies – especially where digital change is at stake. Some of them are also politically spicy. According to Heil’s plans, the “design of mobile work” should be included as a new item in the statutory catalog of matters subject to strict co-determination. So far this catalog comprises 13 points, including the distribution of working hours and company regulations for accident prevention.
In October, Heil had already included such a co-determination obligation of the works councils in matters of mobile working (“home office”) in its politically highly controversial first draft law on the subject of “right to home office”. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) immediately stopped this draft law because it was too far-reaching and too burdensome for the economy. In a revised new version of the home office bill, Heil had then deleted this codetermination passage in order to win the approval of the Chancellery for it – and now exactly the same controversial passage appears again in the draft of the new “Works Council Strengthening Act”.
In principle, the Minister of Labor can invoke the coalition agreement with his new project, so a blanket rejection by the Union is not to be expected. “We want to facilitate the establishment and election of works councils,” says the contract, among other things. It also attaches great importance to co-determination in the company “in the digital transformation”. In addition to the planned restriction of fixed-term employment, this law is also one of the projects that the SPD intends to implement in good time before the general election. It is still unclear to what extent the Union sees itself bound by a coalition decision from the spring to spare companies from avoidable burdens during the Corona crisis.
IThe resolution of the Prime Minister and the Federal Government states: “Additional opportunities are being created for parents to take paid leave to look after their children during the period mentioned.” But that leaves almost all questions unanswered: Are these additional days off? ? Under what circumstances are they granted? And who should pay the extra time – employers or the state?