CORONAVIRUS

Spain’s public employment services swamped by millions of coronavirus-related jobless claims

Agencies have increased staff to process filings tied to temporary layoff schemes in a bid to start paying benefits by early May

A closed unemployment office in Seville.
A closed unemployment office in Seville.PACO PUENTES / EL PAÍS

Spain’s unemployment offices are struggling to deal with a flood of jobless claims tied to a temporary layoff scheme meant to soften the economic blow of the coronavirus crisis.

Around three million workers have requested unemployment assistance after companies filed 450,000 ERTEs (or expediente de regulación temporal de empleo, as the temporary layoff plan is called in Spanish). Under the scheme, employers can send workers home without pay for a certain amount of time, but must take them back once this period ends. Workers can claim unemployment during this time, and companies can also put staff on a reduced schedule.

Faced with a surge in ERTE filings, regional governments have expanded their processing staff in a bid to avoid bottlenecks, but government sources said that the real challenge lies in the millions of individual jobless claims, which are handled by the national agency SEPE.

We are processing filings on Saturdays and Sundays
Chakir El Homrani, chief of Catalan department of labor

These sources said that the agency has beefed up its computer system in order to quadruple its ability to process and approve claims. Over 600,000 jobless claims were approved in March, and more than 2.5 million are expected to be greenlighted by late April so that most of the applicants can start collecting their benefits in early May.

The Spanish government decreed a state of alarm exactly one month ago. During this time, the number of workers affected by ERTE filings has soared to more than double of what they were during the entire 2009-2019 period, which included a long economic crisis in Spain.

Public unemployment services, which had already experienced cuts after years of austerity, are now faced with an unprecedented workload. “During the first few days we had a real backlog,” said Yago Negueruela, the regional chief of employment for the Balearic Islands.

This official said that before the coronavirus crisis, there was one single government employee handling ERTEs on the islands, and now there are 103 of them.

His counterpart in the Valencia region told a similar story, noting that where there were once 10 workers processing ERTEs, there are now 40. And the situation is similar in the Canary Islands, Aragón, Catalonia and Andalusia, said officials in those regions. “We are processing filings on Saturdays and Sundays,” said the head of the Catalan labor department, Chakir El Homrani, at a parliamentary appearance on Thursday.

Slow process

Legal experts who are helping corporate clients file ERTEs complain that the process is too slow. Teresa Aguirre, a labor lawyer, has filed ERTEs in Madrid, the Valencia region and the Basque Country for schools, restaurants and a museum, and she says that so far only one decision has been returned. In Madrid, she cannot even follow up on the status of the applications, which are being filed online. She also reports that numerous technical glitches are affecting webpages and apps.

Maricarmen Barrera, head of social policy at the labor union UGT, talks about “a bottleneck,” and says that the years of cuts and lack of investment in public employment services are now becoming evident.

The concentrated effort to cover ERTE-related jobless claims is also delaying other initiatives, such as processing the financial aid for domestic workers introduced by the government as part of its coronavirus relief effort.

“The benefit scheme for domestic workers is currently being designed. It involves a lot of work and when it’s ready we will make the announcement,” said sources at the Spanish Labor Ministry. Approved on March 31, the aid is expected to reach an estimated 400,000 house workers who are signed up to the Social Security system.

English version by Susana Urra.

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