COVID-19

Social security responses to COVID-19: the case of Spain

COVID-19

Social security responses to COVID-19: the case of Spain

In Spain, the government introduced a significant number of social security measures to mitigate the health, social and economic impact of COVID-19. The National Social Security Institute (INSS) and the General Treasury of Social Security (TGSS) have played a key role in implementing these measures.

Rapid adaptations to social security contributions and benefits, the possibility to leverage highly developed e-services, and adequate adjustments to administrative processes enabled an effective social security response to the crisis.

Social security contributions and benefits

  • Reinforcing the health care system: Strengthening the health care system was a priority concern throughout the crisis, including through transfers of additional funds to the Ministry of Health and the Autonomous Communities.
  • Reducing the economic burden on employers: Small and medium enterprises and the self-employed were permitted to defer social security contributions. Employers who temporarily reduced their employees' working hours were exempt from paying all or part of the social security contributions starting in March. The government fully covered these contributions for employers with less than 50 employees, and the rate was 75 per cent for bigger employers. The government share gradually reduced during May and June. Companies that benefited from lower contributions must reimburse the INSS in case they decide to distribute dividends to shareholders this year.
  • Supporting employment: Reducing lay-offs and providing incentives for rehiring workers was an important government objective. As an incentive to employers, the government has for example covered up 85 per cent of the employer contributions for rehired workers during the month of May and will cover up to 70 per cent in June. Employers must reimburse these amounts in case they dismiss these workers within a period of 6 months.
  • New benefits and extending coverage: A number of measures in different branches of social security secured income replacement in the Covid-19 context, supported longer-term employment objectives and reduced the crisis impact on vulnerable groups. Some measures were also extended to the self-employed, for instance an income replacement benefit for self-employed persons affected by the crisis modelled after unemployment benefits for workers.
  • Recognizing COVID-19 as an occupational disease: The rapid recognition of COVID-19 as an occupational disease if contracted at work enabled eligibility for benefits under the work injury insurance system. This protection was also extended to self-employed workers.

Operational measures and continuity of social security services

A strict lockdown in Spain over several weeks obliged social security institutions to suspend all in-person customer services as well as to implement teleworking for most of their staff.

In this context, the INSS and the TGSS put into practice a number of operational measures aimed at ensuring business-continuity and maintaining the communication with employers, social security beneficiaries and insured workers.

Leveraging existing digital channels, consisting of online collection of social security contributions and processing of benefit claims using a digital identity mechanism, significantly helped these objectives. Bank-based payments for all social security clients further enabled the continuity of cash benefits as well as the collection of contributions. A rapid increase in the use of digital channels by about 60 per cent could be observed, with most of them related to claims of cash sickness benefits. A high priority was given to communication with the population, including through media and a permanently updated web pages and frequently asked questions (FAQs).

Established channels of inter-institutional collaboration and data sharing also facilitated the crisis response. Coordination and data sharing for registries and the payment of benefits in particular allowed the INSS and the TGSS to meet a number of challenges.

The operational measures adopted by the social security institutions mainly consisted of:

  • Taking advantage of existing call centers and digital channels, such as the personalized e-portals your-social security (“Tu seguridad social”), e-office (“Sede electrónica”), “RED” system, and the shared electronic register (“Registro electrónico”).
  • Adapting identification and documentary evidence requirements: Even persons without an electronic ID were able to submit claims and other necessary documentation. This was made possible by accepting the asserted identity for clients claiming social security benefits. Similarly, alternative documentary evidence was admitted if the normally required documents could not be provided. Notably, eligibility control requirements have not been reduced.
  • Extending deadlines: The application of certain legal deadlines was put on hold if this would have been detrimental to beneficiaries.
  • Adapting work processes: Social security institutions revised all work processes to re-assign duties and tasks according to the new and increased needs in service delivery, and according to the available teleworking means. This included a shift from paper to electronic-based procedures.
  • Modifying the working environment: A number of organizational measures facilitated the implementation of teleworking. This included streamlined access to the corporate email to all staff, the distribution of laptops and virtual desks toolboxes as well as the extension of remote access of staff using secured connections and virtual private network (VPN).

Conclusion

Existing administrative and e-services capacity, innovation and flexibility have enabled the Spanish social security institutions to effectively implement the government strategy to enhance social security protection and reduce the economic burden on employers and the self-employed.

As Spain has entered a phase of gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions, the social security institutions also accompany this process through transition measures with regard to contributions, benefits and services. A newly established tripartite commission coordinated by the Ministry of Employment and Social Economy discusses and reviews these measures on a bi-weekly basis.

Existing e-services and a fully developed e-payment system for contributions were particularly valuable for the immediate crisis response and continued service delivery, and allowed the institutions to focus their efforts on process adaptation and the delivery of new types of benefits and services. The long-standing operational coordination among institutions also facilitated the control and administration of payments. Importantly, the commitment of staff and their readiness and capacity to adapt and learn in a short time frame was another key enabling factor.

Challenges encountered related both to service delivery and in particular how to reach beneficiaries with low digital literacy, and to operational matters such as securing remote access of staff on telework to various IT-systems. The importance of promoting e-services, e-administration and digital literacy is therefore an important lesson for the future.