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Invalidity rules must change

"Disability Management" at Ford Cologne has saved the company millions Keystone

Spiralling costs are prompting employers and the government to think of new ways of dealing with workers who suffer physical and mental illnesses.

This content was published on November 17, 2003 - 08:54

Experts say people who are temporarily unable to work should have their job kept open so as to prevent them from falling out of the job market permanently.

They say a move in this direction would save money, and reduce the steadily rising ranks of people claiming invalidity pensions.

One promising scheme is run by the Ford car company at its branch in the German city of Cologne. It has introduced a system under which affected employees receive special care, with a view to reintegrating them into the workplace.

“What do you need? How can we support you?” are questions employers should be asking their sick workers, says Hans Schmidt, an expert on the invalidity benefit system.

As a lawyer he has helped over 1,000 clients to claim full invalidity pensions. But he believes an invalidity pension does not really meet the needs of many workers, and nor does it help the economy or the country.

Schmidt now thinks employers should promise to keep jobs open for sick workers, and get them back to work as quickly as possible.

“What we need is a complete rethink of invalidity benefits. We need to move from an offer-based system to a needs-based system,” he told swissinfo.

Schmidt has become a keen lobbyist in Switzerland for the Cologne model, as it is known.

Disability

The Ford car company has introduced a “Disability Management” program in its Cologne factory, under which workers suffering physical or mental problems are supported throughout their rehabilitation by the employers.

Vacancies are found in the company which are suitable for the reduced capabilities of the affected workers.

The system has had a two-fold success; most of the workers in Cologne have been able to return to work, and the factory saves SFr15 million a year.

Schmidt’s campaign in Switzerland is beginning to bear fruit. His targets are cantonal and city departments, as well as larger companies such as Coop or Migros.

Now Zurich’s cantonal justice department is examining different forms of the Cologne model, with a view to introducing one of them for its 2000 employees.

Pension funds

“Increasing invalidity payments are depleting our pension funds,” explained Susanne Stähelin, who is head of human resources at the department.

“The great trick would be to achieve a win-win situation,” said Stähelin. She is keen to take on the challenge of revising the invalidity benefit system. And other Zurich businesses are watching her efforts closely.

“The deciding factor really will be whether the model actually saves money or not,” said Stähelin.

Schmidt’s work is supported by the government, but only in the sense that there is universal agreement on the need for reform.

Invalidity is a sensitive issue, and exactly how the system should be changed is the subject of much disagreement.

Reintegration

“In fact our invalidity system has been operating the Cologne model for 40 years already,” said Beatrice Breitenmoser, deputy director of the federal department of social insurance. “Because our policy is that reintegration into the workplace takes priority over an invalidity pension.”

“The problem is that invalidity cases come to us much too late; often over a year or more after the worker becomes ill, and by that time the employee’s connection with the employer and the workplace has been broken.”

Breitenmoser is pinning her hopes on the current revision of the laws on invalidity benefit. The new legislation should include methods for the early recognition of potentially problematic cases.

As is currently the case with accidents, the whole history of the invalidity should be documented, including the role of the company, and of the doctors involved.

Obligatory

Nevertheless Breitenmoser believes any new measures must have broad support. “Obligatory measures will only be opposed by the employers,” she said.

One obligatory scheme is the Canada model, under which companies are fined for producing too many invalids.

Peter Hasler, director of the Swiss Employers’ Association, agrees that the Canada model would be impossible, because of its “punitive” nature. Nevertheless he supports the concept of rewarding companies who produce fewer invalids.

Companies need to be persuaded to offer borderline invalidity cases further employment. “But it’s important that the work they do is economically worthwhile,” said Hasler.

Swiss trades unions have doubts about both the Cologne and the Canada models. “I think they are worth looking at,” said Colette Nova of the Swiss Trades Unions Association. “But they couldn’t be imported part and parcel into Switzerland.”

But the unions agree that invalidity cases need to be notified and treated from day one. And, Nova continued, included in that notification should be a right to return work.

swissinfo, Renat Künzi (translation: Imogen Foulkes)

Key facts

The number of people on invalidity pensions in Switzerland has risen from 140,000 to 220,000 in the past ten years.
The costs of the pensions during this time have risen by 60 per cent, to SFr11 billion.
Some 30% of those claiming invalidity pensions have psychological problems.
It is estimated that between 10% and 15% of those on invalidity benefit are not genuine cases.
Foreign employees have no right of a return to work.

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