Italy was one of the countries most affected by COVID-19 during the first semester 2020. In addition to a generalized lockdown starting on 10 March, wide-reaching social security measures to mitigate the health, social and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis were implemented. Two early decrees in March and April (“Cure Italy Decree” and “Liquidity Decree”) containing emergency response measures were followed by legislation (“Relaunch Decree”) adopted in May to support the recovery.
The National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work (INAIL) and the National Social Security Institute (INPS) demonstrated high levels of agility and flexibility to maintain continuity in the provision of benefits and services, and to implement newly adopted measures. This response was facilitated by pre-crisis investment in digital service delivery channels and the innovative development of new tools.
In the context of continued economic difficulties and efforts to prevent a second wave, Italy faces the challenge of adapting the level and generosity of social security measures in an uncertain and rapidly evolving situation.
Social security measures
Starting in March, the Italian social security system became one of the major instruments to respond to a rapidly deteriorating situation. Measures were taken across all social security branches, and focussed in particular on supporting the health system response, maintaining employment and protecting vulnerable groups at risk of poverty. Concretely, the following measures were implemented:
Strengthening the health care system: This included channelling additional funds to the National Health Service, the recruitment of health workers and the construction of new hospital wards dedicated to the treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Contribution collection: The mandate to pay social security contributions was suspended from March to the end of May. The payment deadline for these contributions was later extended to the middle of September. While this deadline was not extended further, employers have been given the option to pay the outstanding contributions in instalments.
Supporting employment: Existing provisions that support employers facing economic difficulties were expanded significantly. This included in particular the wage guarantee schemes that provides compensation in the case of temporary partial or full reduction in working time. The first emergency response established access to up to nine weeks of compensation for the period from 23 February to 31 August. In view of the continued economic crisis, an additional nine weeks were added in May, of which four weeks had to be taken during the period of September to October. This requirement was later lifted and legislation in August established 18 additional weeks of compensation to be accessed between July and the end of December 2020. While the first nine weeks of this additional period would not include any cost for the employer, further access is subject to a cost participation by the employer.
The access to these wage guarantee benefits was facilitated through a change in the payment mechanism. While the INPS had usually reimbursed employers for the wages paid to workers, employers could now request the direct payment of wage guarantee benefits to their employees. To accelerate payments, a compensation for up to 40 per cent of the authorized working time reduction was paid within 15 days of the application date, and the remainder after receipt of all necessary data from employers.
These efforts to support employment through wage guarantee schemes was complemented by the freezing of collective and individual dismissal procedures for an initial duration of 60 days, which was later extended to five months. This also included fixed-term contracts and temporary agency work, which had to be extended during the period of suspension of work due to the generalized lockdown.
Income support for non-standard workers: A lump sum of 600 euro (EUR) was paid to seasonal workers, self-employed workers and external collaborators for three months starting in March. This amount was increased to EUR 1,000 euros for certain categories of workers for the month of May. In addition, workers in non-standard employment who do not contribute to the national social security scheme were provided access to cash sickness benefits until the end of April.
Reinforcement of leave entitlements and family support: Support to families was an important priority during the crisis, and included in particular the strengthening of parental leave. A parental leave entitlement of up to 15 days, which was later extended to 30 days, was granted to employees and the self-employed covered by the national social security scheme. Significant funds were also allocated to assist persons with disabilities and families with disabled family members, and vouchers for accessing care services were introduced.
Recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease: COVID-19 was recognized as an occupational disease for doctors, nurses and other employees of the National Health Service as well as of any other public or private health facility. This included cases where the identification of the precise cause of the infection was difficult. In addition, INAIL implemented a number of initiatives to support health workers, which included for example the establishment of psychological support services.
Operational measures and continuity of social security services
In the context of the generalized lockdown, INAIL and the INPS had to adapt rapidly to ensure business continuity, implement emergency response measures and contribute to national efforts to contain the spread of the virus. Existing and newly developed e-services reduced the need for face-to-face interactions with customers and facilitated the implementation of mandatory teleworking for most staff. The commitment to communication with the public and the dissemination of information on the emergency situation through improved online channels and multimedia tools proved to be an essential factor in the crisis response. Concretely, operational responses of social security institutions included the following measures:
Remote working and reorganization of the working environment: Mandatory teleworking was facilitated by the establishment of remote access to institutional emails for all staff, the distribution of laptops and the creation of secure connections. For those workers whose presence in the office was required, offices were re-arranged to ensure their health and safety.
Systematic use of digital services: The existing e-service portals and personal accounts allowing the digital submissions of files and provision of services was a key factor enabling service continuity. The access to these online services was simplified through the relaxation of identification procedures, and expanded to the entire population.
Focus on communication: Significant efforts were made to communicate with the public and inform customers of their rights in the context of the pandemic. The introduction of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) tools and Chatbots aimed at enhancing information for customers using digital service channels. Phone services were expanded to provide access to information for customers not using such channels. In addition, the INPS and INAIL communicated through a range of multimedia tools and social media to support the efforts of health authorities to contain the spread of the virus. Information videos and simple step-by-step tutorials were created to support the public understanding of emergency measures.
Administrative and procedural flexibility: With the objectives to simplify procedures, reduce the need for in-person interaction and provide benefits in the context of a generalized lockdown, a number of administrative and procedural requirements were relaxed. This included for instance the necessity to provide certain documentary evidence supporting claims and the suspension of deadlines.
Italy was one of the first European countries required to enforce a generalized lockdown and implement emergency response measures to mitigate the health, social and economic impact of the crisis. The Italian social security system was a pillar of the crisis response, and social security institutions reacted promptly and effectively to an unprecedented situation.
Having overcome the most severe crisis from March to May, Italy has been facing the challenge to adjust social security measures to continued economic difficulties, the ongoing need for restrictions and significant uncertainty with regard to the future spread of the coronavirus. While some social security response measures have been extended, others were ended or adapted to the increasingly diversified realities of different economic sectors and population groups. In an uncertain context, social security and the capacity of social security institutions to react rapidly remain essential assets.