A friend of mine in Brussels casually mentioned how she’d wanted to take a sabbatical, but the new government had changed the program. She’d hoped to take some time off to work on personal projects, but she worried about what would happen to people who relied on a sabbatical to take care of relatives. What would they do now that the program provided no financial support?
Her comment really piqued my interest — what programs are available to family caregivers in Belgium?
Belgium’s time credit system
In Belgium employees were able to take a tijdskrediet / crédit-temps or ‘time credit’ while collecting most of their regular salary. To be eligible they had to have worked full-time for two years and at least one full year for their current employer. Employees can take up to a full year off or can work half-time for slightly longer than a year. They can also work 80% of the time for up to 5 years, or longer if the employer agrees to it. At the end they would be able to get their job back or return to full-time work. Employees could do this for a maximum of three years during their working life.
The government would cover most of the cost, with the employer covering a ‘supplement.’ The employer cannot deny an employee’s request for a sabbatical without a serious business reason. In a country where the social safety net makes it expensive and difficult to reduce the workforce, sabbaticals can be a way for a company to reduce their expenses while encouraging their employees to take care of their families and pursue interests. This was also seen as a way to get people back into the workforce, as it increased the number of available temporary job opportunities.
Encouraging work/life balance
Employees who are ill, have a new child, or have an ill relative are all encouraged to take a sabbatical. The government has introduced tax incentives to encourage people to outsource household tasks, like cleaning, cooking, and childcare. This is intended to reduce stress on working women and turn unpaid work into paid career opportunities. Overtime pay must be paid to people who work over 39 hours per week. Still, many more women work part-time than men in Belgium.
The history of time credits
The time credit system was introduced in 1985, as a way to reduce unemployment and address work/life balance. Employees could interrupt their careers for family obligations, education, personal projects, or any reason at all. Employers were required to hire an unemployed person during the sabbatical, bringing many people back into the workforce.
In 2002 the law was changed so employers were no longer required to hire an unemployed person to fill the position during a sabbatical. Trade unions have generally supported the sabbatical system as long as employees were taking work reductions voluntarily.
The option to work 80% of the time has become very popular among men and women over the age of 50, who are very likely to be providing support for their own parents as well as grandchildren.
In January of 2015 the time credit system was changed so that the National Employment Office no longer covered any of the employee’s salary. Employees can still take time off for a sabbatical, but they have to do so without pay. Older persons wishing to reduce their hours indefinitely to ease into retirement must now be 60 years old.
Luckily, Belgium provides other support for the 12% of the population providing family caregiving. Of the elderly in Belgium, 82% have an informal caregiver.
Paid family caregiving
Family caregivers in Flemish Belgium are provided with allowances. The amount of financial support and eligibility criteria are different for each region. There’s also a small payment intended to cover out-of-pocket expenses, which averages 30 euros per month. Flemish Care Insurance is mandatory for all residents. In most cases, cash benefits provided are reduced if the household income is over a certain amount.
Anecdotally, because many people providing care don’t identify as caregivers, they don’t apply for financial support designed to help caregivers.
In addition to sabbaticals, family caregivers have access to:
- Palliative care leave for terminally ill parents (2 months + 1 month extension, with 750 euro/month)
- Medical assistance leave (up to 12 months, taken in 1-3 month increments, with 750 euro/month)
- Emergency leave (10-45 days/year)
Caregivers in Belgium have access to training through nonprofit organizations. There is no centralized service for respite care and counseling, although these are available to most people. Like the US, most services are designed based on the location and condition of the person receiving care.
Because 99% of the population is covered by compulsory health insurance, patients face limited health care expenses. However, these expenses can still be a serious burden on families. Home care is covered for low-income families and on a per-diem basis.
Disabled people in Belgium are given a dependence allowance and a personal assistance budget, which are meant to assist with caregiving expenses. However, these funds are used at the discretion of the care recipient. Care recipients are also eligible for an income replacement payment and other allocations.
Like caregivers in the US and Canada, caregivers in Belgium are hesitant to use the respite care available to them because of feelings of guilt, objections from the care recipient, and fears of loss of privacy.
Social Entitlement credits
Belgium worked to create a legal definition of family caregiving from 2008, passing the law in May 2014. The goal is to provide tax benefits for caregivers and social security credits for time spent providing care. This could also provide family caregivers with specific rights and workplace protections.
Thankfully, even self-employed persons in Belgium are entitled to caregiver support and sabbaticals.
Belgians are legally obligated to provide for their elders and the average nursing home cost exceeds the average pension payment.
Family caregivers in Belgium suffer from fragmented information sources and a lack of continuity in care. One survey of family caregivers in Belgium of people with mental health issues found that 1 in 4 were dissatisfied with the support they received from their workspace.
Would you like to see these programs extended to the US or Canada? Do you think they would work in another country? Have you provided care for a loved one in another country?