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Fierce debate about Norwegian sickness benefit

| Text: Berit Kvam and Gunhild Wallin

The costs of sick pay and sickness pension in Norway have increased dramatically in recent years and correspond to half the income from the oil pumped out of the North Sea. This is worrying in consideration of not only the costs but also the drain on manpower.

Recently, a commission put forward a proposal for a lower level of sick pay at the start of a period of illness. This proposal has stimulated a lively debate.

«Norway has the world’s best sickness benefit system. We aim to keep it that way,» comments Social Affairs Minister, Guri Ingebrigtsen.

When Norwegians are taken ill, they currently receive 100 % compensation from day one, i.e. full wages during the period of illness. But in recent years, the costs have risen astronomically and are considerably higher than those in neighbouring countries.

Above all, it is the costs for those with long term illnesses and on sickness pension that have increased. In the spring of 1999, the Bondevik government set up a commission which presented a report in the middle of September. The commission comprised the social partners, interest groups, representatives for affected departments and independent experts. The proposal entitled «An inclusive working life» stresses that the level of absence due to sickness is a problem for the individuals, companies and society. The main aim is that a solution can be found by developing a stronger sense of responsibility in both individuals and companies when it comes to reporting sick.

Therefore, the commission proposes that employees are subject to a 20 % reduction of benefit for the first sixteen days of sickness, currently completely funded by employers. Thereafter, it is proposed that employers cover 20 % of the costs for 50 weeks.

It is proposed that employees are recompensed for this by having lower social insurance contributions, and for those who are off sick no more than twelve days a year it should not make any difference. On the other hand, it will be costlier for those who are off sick for a great many short periods.

Employers are recompensed by having lower costs for the first sixteen days, but will have to pay out more money than previously. Their responsibility for early rehabilitation is also covered in the report.

It is proposed that the sick pension is split into two parts. One part subject to a time limit which needs to be reviewed after four years, the other part of an enduring nature for those assessed as never able to return to working life.

The aspect that makes the debate so fierce is mainly the fact that employees will receive reduced sickness benefit for the first sixteen days. It hits the lowest paid people in the most exposed working environments.

Making employees bear a part of the costs is individualising a problem that often has its roots in a hard working life, claim the critics. Others say that it will mean people going to work in spite of sickness.

The proposal has now been referred for consideration and will be debated by the parliament (Stortinget) during the spring.

«We will take whatever time we need to find a good solution to these major challenges,» says Guri Ingebrigtsen.

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