Analysis – Priorities for social security

Social security responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – Americas

Analysis – Priorities for social security

Social security responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – Americas

The COVID-19 crisis has forced countries across the Americas to take unprecedented steps to protect their populations, chiefly in the fields of public health and social security. In particular, States have developed a wide range of policies designed to safeguard their citizens against lost income when lockdown measures have made it impossible for them to carry out their productive economic activities. Such policies are many and varied, primarily comprising employment protection, the mobilization of unemployment benefits and the creation of social programmes to protect those groups hit hardest by the crisis, such as self-employed and informal workers.

The experiences analysed show evidence of a diversity of new programmes and benefits aimed at broad sectors of the population, rolled out as part of an undertaking of unprecedented scale. The role of social security institutions have been key to implementing the new measures efficiently and effectively. Likewise, medical service providers have played a fundamental role in the roll out of national health measures. Importantly, these institutions have successfully maintained the continuity of their face-to-face services while reducing unnecessary physical contact with the public. The use of digital channels and telemedicine and the transition towards an integrated human/digital approach have not only helped to achieve these ends, but also provided a blueprint for moving towards a more agile social security system and higher-quality services.

The COVID-19 crisis has also highlighted that social security systems must evolve to provide the public with enhanced levels of protection. Many of the measures adopted – both, in terms of the content of social security policies and their operational aspects – could contribute to achieving these objectives.

Key messages

  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has obliged governments across the Americas to take unprecedented measures, particularly in the fields of health and social security, with a view to protecting the hardest-hit sections of their populations.
  • Health-care providers have made a vital contribution to the national effort. In adopting innovative measures, they have succeeded in maintaining their public service provision.
  • Key among the social security measures adopted are employment protection, support for people who have lost their jobs and support for vulnerable groups through emergency programmes. In addition, affected enterprises have been supported through the easing of their social security obligations.
  • Ensuring the continuity of public services has been a priority for institutions in the Americas. Digitalization has played a crucial role, along with the provision of telephone and home-based services. At a national level, coordination between social security institutions and other bodies has been fundamental in implementing the government’s response.
  • One of the main learning outcomes of the pandemic is just how important social security institutions are in protecting national populations. Their capacity and resilience are therefore key when it comes to facing exceptional situations.
  • The COVID-19 crisis has exposed gaps in social protection coverage, especially for self-employed and informal workers. At the same time, it has also led to a number of system improvements. The experiences gleaned while implementing measures to protect the most affected groups, along with digitalizing services and maintaining their continuity, will prove invaluable in further developing social security systems and services.

Social Policy and Programme Responses

The COVID-19 crisis, which began in March 2020, has destabilized economies and social security systems across the world. According to International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates, the equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost in 2020 (ILO, 2021).

In this context, in addition to implementing health policies to tackle the pandemic, countries have developed a package of emergency measures aimed at protecting the hardest-hit sections of their populations. Measures include the safeguarding of jobs through a series of job retention programmes. For their part, and facing real job losses, social security institutions not only introduced temporary emergency unemployment support, but also raised the level and duration of existing benefits. Combined with this, some countries offered aid to businesses to promote the incorporation of redundant workers in the most affected sectors (ISSA, 2021a).

Supporting employment and unemployment benefits

Unemployment benefits compensate for loss of income as a result of involuntary unemployment. According to ILO calculations, only 38.6 per cent of the global workforce has access to this form of protection, with just 21.8 per cent actually receiving it (ILO, 2017). This constitutes the lowest level of coverage of all the various social security branches.

The ISSA (2021) has reported on a series of measures adopted in the Americas since the second half of 2020. These can be split into two main groups: i) increased unemployment benefits and an easing of eligibility criteria and access to health cover; and ii) supplementary temporary unemployment benefits, either calculated as a percentage of the existing unemployment benefit or paid at a fixed rate, with a view to providing workers and their families with rapid support. In some countries where this branch of social security did not exist, subsidies were offered for unemployed people, including self-employed and informal workers, who are generally excluded from these types of benefits, in the form of cash transfers (ISSA, 2020a).

Examples of such a response include Colombia’s “Emergency flat-rate benefit and extended health insurance coverage”; Dominica’s “Temporary social assistance unemployment benefits”; and El Salvador and Argentina’s pay-outs to support vulnerable self-employed workers and the informal sector (Emergency Work and Production Assistance Programme), much like the support provided to the families of vulnerable self-employed workers in Peru. In addition to the above experiences can be added Uruguay’s “Cash benefit for companies in the tourism sector that reincorporate workers on furlough” (BPS, 2021) and Jamaica’s “BEST Cash” programme, which represent a third group of measures designed to support businesses in the hardest-hit economic sectors.

For its part, the Dominican Republic offered lockdown-affected companies registered with its Social Security Treasury (Tesorería de la Seguridad Social – TSS) a wage subsidy of 70 per cent of their salary bill.

Supporting vulnerable groups

The crisis led governments to establish new emergency social security benefits to protect groups with no coverage and to extend existing schemes to vulnerable groups. These benefits took various forms and can be categorized as follows (ISSA, 2020b):

  • Temporary cash benefits. Benefits paid on a regular basis for a limited period of time. The eligibility criteria varied and were based on income, loss of employment and household configuration.
  • One-off lump-sum payments. These special payments sought to support vulnerable groups, although they were paid out to the whole population in some instances.
  • Increases in existing benefits. Some social security institutions temporarily extended the benefits they were already paying.
  • Advance payment of benefits. In addition to responding to financial needs related to the COVID-19 crisis, authorities also sought to reduce the health risks of overcrowding in payment centres.
  • Temporary relaxation of eligibility criteria. To increase the number of eligible households, several countries eased the administrative requirements for accessing benefits.
  • Extension of coverage for existing benefits. Some countries extended existing benefits to population groups that previously enjoyed no coverage, such as informal workers.

An unprecedented number of measures broadened the reach and enhanced the benefits of existing social assistance programmes, particularly emergency income-security programmes (ISSA, 2020c), as illustrated by the following experiences.

Anguilla introduced two state-funded benefit schemes. The first was run by the Anguilla Social Security Board (SSB) and based on individuals’ contribution records; the other directly paid out benefits to those not covered by the SSB or who had not made sufficient contributions. As such, thousands of workers were eligible for cash transfers for up to three months, including the self-employed and workers in nonstandard employment. In less than a month, the SSB had launched a web-based platform for receiving online applications and making benefit payments via banks. In parallel, it rolled out an awareness-raising campaign to inform the general public about the benefits on offer.

Argentina launched its Emergency Family Income (Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia – IFE), a noncontributory scheme aimed at the families of casual, unemployed and domestic workers, and those in the very lowest tax categories. This scheme exhibits many noteworthy characteristics, such as close coordination between public bodies and compatibility with other noncontributory benefits. It also provides a point of entry for new social security beneficiaries, thereby encouraging their inclusion in future policy.

In Grenada, which lacked any unemployment protection, the National Insurance Board (NIB) launched the Unemployment Assistance Benefit (UAB). Staff were trained in the use of the new software, the electronic funds transfer service was upgraded to enable direct payments into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, and a communications campaign was conducted to raise awareness of the new benefit.

For its part, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) introduced a one-off tax-free payment of 300 Canadian dollars (CAD) for seniors who were eligible for the Old Age Security (OAS) pension. It also provided a financial support package of four weeks’ duration, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), to employed and self-employed Canadians who were forced to cease working as a result of COVID-19.

Other experiences identified by the ISSA (2020) include that of Brazil, where unemployed workers and micro-entrepreneurs, in both the formal and informal economy, who did not yet feature in the single national social protection registry had the possibility of signing up, through a website or a mobile application, to access an emergency benefit of three months’ duration. Various countries offered advance payments, bonuses or higher old-age and disability benefits.

Costa Rica implemented a new emergency benefit (Bono Proteger) for up to three months, targeting employees and self-employed workers (both formal and informal) who had lost their jobs and income, and also those working reduced hours. The benefit was promoted through a telephone application used by 90 per cent of eligible workers.

In Ecuador, a special “contingency benefit” was established. It was aimed at informal workers who were infected with COVID-19, or affected in some other way, and paid out through existing social security channels.

The United States of America approved the American Rescue Plan, comprising a round of stimulus payments as well as extending certain benefits and tax relief linked to unemployment benefits, the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Flexibility and temporary exemptions from contributions

As part of the emergency measures introduced to support companies in the wake of the dramatic reduction in economic activity, many governments and social security institutions reduced or temporarily suspended social security contributions (ISSA, 2020d). The objective was to support businesses in resisting the crisis and, thus, to help protect jobs. In Brazil, contributions to the employees’ severance guarantee fund (Fundo de Garantia do Tempo de Serviço – FGTS) were exempted. In Argentina, employers who had suffered a radical reduction in income owing to the pandemic, particularly but not exclusively in the tourism, transport and hotel sectors, could request an exemption from social security contributions.

While some of these measures had been implemented during previous crises, this time they were specifically oriented and considered holistically to ensure that they complemented other governmentled measures.

Classification of COVID‐19 infection as an occupational disease

A large number of American countries have classified COVID-19 infection as an occupational disease. This is the case, for example, in Argentina, Brazil and Canada. Similar provisions were adopted in Chile, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Mexico considers it an occupational disease for employees exhibiting coronavirus symptoms or in receipt of a confirmed diagnosis (Social Security Law, 2021). In Panama, however, a medical doctor is required to determine how the infection occurred in order for it to be considered as such, and the provision does not apply to home-based workers. In Colombia and Peru, COVID-19 infection is recognized as an occupational disease for health workers. While in Uruguay, in all cases, medical care and its costs in the event of infection fall to the comprehensive health-care provider to which the affected worker is affiliated. In Paraguay, to ensure a healthy and safe return to work, sectoral occupational safety and health protocols have been drawn up that establish guidelines to be adopted by companies on the basis of social dialogue.

Operational Measures: Service Continuity and Programme Roll-Out

The restrictions on personal interaction that came into force during the COVID-19 crisis interrupted or significantly reduced the services that could be provided to the public on social security institution premises. The institutions were obliged to adjust their service-delivery models, to ensure service continuity as well as respond to an increased demand for benefits. Such operational measures can be categorized as follows (ISSA, 2020e):

  • greater use of digital channels, including electronic, mobile and shared data services;
  • pragmatic approaches taken to reach all parts of the population, particularly through the use of call centres to provide services to those unable to access digital channels, and homebased services where required;
  • flexibility and adaptation of any requirements for physical presence and paper-based documents in the submission of requests and the handling of operations;
  • re-deployment of staff into new roles and adaptation of processes to handle an unprecedented volume of operations.

Public service delivery

Digital channels have played a crucial role in maintaining customer services during this period of COVID-19 restrictions, and their use has increased dramatically. Institutions have drawn on existing digital service portals and, in the context of the pandemic, some – such as Argentina’s National Social Security Administration (Administración Nacional de la Seguridad Social – ANSES) – have complemented these with virtual assistance platforms.

While digital channels are becoming increasingly popular with the population, some groups of beneficiaries have difficulty using them. For this reason, the institutions have bolstered their callcentre telephone channels by reassigning staff, equipping them with integrated IT systems and, in some cases, allowing them to carry out operations on behalf of beneficiaries. They have also provided home-based services, including the delivery of medication in the case of the Social Insurance Fund of Costa Rica (Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social – CCSS) and the Social Security Institute of Guatemala (Instituto Guatemalteco de Seguridad Social – IGSS), and home payments, as introduced by the Colombian Pension Administrator (I – Colpensiones).

One-stop shops have played a particularly vital role in the remote delivery of high-quality services (ISSA, 2021b). This type of digital channel has permitted several of the region’s institutions to continue providing services to the public, in particular Argentina’s Federal Administration of Public Resources (Administración Federal de Ingresos Públicos – AFIP) (AFIP, 2017); Brazil’s National Social Security Institute (Instituto Nacional do Seguro Social – INSS) (INSS, 2020) and DATAPREV – Social Security Information and Technology Enterprise (Empresa de Tecnologia e Informações da Previdência Social) (DATAPREV, 2020); the Mexican Social Security Institute (Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social – IMSS) (IMSS, 2020); and Uruguay’s Social Insurance Bank (Banco de Previsión Social – BPS) (ISSA, 2021b). In Peru, the Social Health Insurance Institute (Seguro Social de Salud – EsSalud) developed the VIVA platform, a one-stop shop for its members (EsSalud, 2020). This initiative, which came about in the context of the COVID-19 health crisis, provided a means of accessing health services during lockdown.

Another approach of note when looking at digital channels for public service delivery is that of telemedicine, which involves the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) to provide remote medical services. The role of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant since it has helped to maintain the link between health-care professionals and their patients while keeping physical contact to a minimum and, in so doing, ensured key services during the pandemic (PAHO and IDB, 2020). It has been utilized by Argentina’s Mutual Association for the Protection of the Family (Asociación Mutual de Protección Familiar – AMPF), the Ecuadorian Social Security Institute (Instituto Ecuatoriano de Seguridad Social – IESS), EsSalud in Peru, the State Employees’ Social Security and Social Services Institute (Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado – ISSSTE) in Mexico, and Uruguay’s Catholic Workers’ Circle of the Uruguay Mutual Fund (Círculo Católico de Obreros del Uruguay Mutualista) and the Social Insurance (Bank Banco de Previsión Social – BPS) (ISSA, 2021c).

Digitalization of services

Over recent years, alongside the growing use of new ICT, social security institutions have been working to combine human skills and technological capabilities. These efforts have helped to generate effective solutions in the Americas in the face of COVID-19 (ISSA, 2020f). The following types of initiative have been especially important in tackling the pandemic:

  • Capacity to develop flexible digital solutions in times of crisis. To provide emergency COVID-19 assistance, some governments relied on their social security institutions to help them reach the population. The experiences of Anguilla, the Bahamas and Grenada illustrate the advantages of such methods, as do the services implemented by the IGSS in Guatemala and Paraguay’s Social Insurance Institute (Instituto de Previsión Social – IPS).
  • Use of analytical technologies. These technologies have enabled institutions to improve how they assess the impact of the pandemic, as well as their decision-making processes. Costa Rica’s CCSS applied analytical techniques to monitoring the behaviour of COVID-19 in the population and the care provided in its health facilities. The IMSS in Mexico developed similar systems, as did EsSalud in Peru, which also set up an intelligence and data-analysis unit (ISSA, 2021e).
  • Streamlining of monitoring and service-delivery mechanisms. The roll out of more agile monitoring mechanisms allowed for benefits to be awarded more efficiently, as per the experiences of the IPS in Paraguay and Guatemala’s IGSS, which replaced the requirement for physical proof of life with biometric proof-of-life systems and videoconferencing mechanisms.

Conclusions

Almost two years on from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efforts to meet existing and emerging social protection needs stemming from the extensive disruption of the labour market remain key priorities for national governments, whose aim is to reduce the impact of the crisis and protect people’s livelihoods.

The authorities have drawn on a range of policy measures to protect affected population sectors, focusing in particular on the most vulnerable groups. Some countries extended and adapted existing social security schemes, while others adopted ad hoc measures, primarily in the form of emergency noncontributory cash transfers. Enterprises were also offered support, which came in the form of reduced social security contributions, temporary contribution exemptions or extended payment terms.

Social security institutions acted swiftly to adapt their service- delivery models to ensure service continuity with a minimum of face-to-face interaction. Decisive factors in ensuring their success were the use of digital channels, telemedicine and pragmatic approaches to meet the needs of all population groups, the easing of requirements for awarding benefits, and the redeployment of staff and the adaptation of processes to deal with an unprecedented workload. These institutions have also played a key role in the roll out of health measures at a national level.

A review of these experiences points to the importance of institutional capacity – qualified staff, technology, infrastructure and governance – in ensuring the effectiveness, scope and timeliness of the social security measures implemented. It also highlights the need to strengthen this capacity in social security institutions.

Finally, with an eye to the future, institutions and governments are assessing how best to capitalize on their experiences and the changes they enacted during the pandemic in order to further enhance their social security systems and services, and thus the social protection of their populations.

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