Social Security Consultation held

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 10, No. 25            June 22, 2000

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A symposium was held this past Thursday evening between Social Security representatives and the people of San Pedro to discuss Social Security's newly proposed benefit package. Present from Social Security were Narda Garcia, General Manager; Henry Link, Assistant General Manager; Grace Ramirez, Benefits Department Manager; Elena Contreras, Contributions Department Manager; Arnaldo Villas, Officer in Charge of the San Pedro Sub Office and Marta Hendrikx, Public Relations Consultant. Social Security is designed to provide a "safety net" by collecting contributions, making investments and paying benefits.

     The proposed package of reforms stems from suggestions, comments, criticisms and complaints received during consultations held in mid-1999 and actuarial studies. Former actuarial studies were done in 1978. It was stated that low insurable earning rates were responsible for the low benefit rates as they are based on a percentage of the insurable earnings; this also determines the contributions paid to Social Security. Benefits have increased three times over the years but not contributions. The maximum insurable earnings will increase from $130 to $320 per week. This will provide for higher income earners to receive higher benefits, but will require they pay higher contributions. To make the difference in the higher contributions supposedly "fairer" for both employee and employer, the 7% contribution will be split between both parties on insurable wages higher than $130; but only after the employer continues to pay the first 6% for their part does this take place. They only split the difference between the old rate of contribution up to $130; so the $9.10 contribution rate was $7.80 for employer and $1.30 for employee. The next new rate of contribution for those with earnings of $140 to $179.99 will be $11.20; but the employer continues to pay the $7.80 and splits the difference of $2.10 with the employee. Subsequently, the employer pays $8.85 and the employee only pays $2.35. For people with insurable weekly earnings from $70 to $130, contributions and benefits will remain the same except for their long term benefits (i.e. grants and pensions). Minimum insurable earnings for those receiving under $70 weekly will increase from $25 to $55, therefore their cash benefits will raise from $20 to $44 as well. It includes increases in pension payments up to a maximum of 34% (i.e. $140.00 to $188.00 every four weeks) or a maximum $59 based on the first ten years, the next five years and the final twenty years the pensioner has been contributing. Other existing pensions will be increased by 20%.

    If and when the proposed package is accepted, the following are a few of the other proposed revised benefits: maternity grants will be tripled from $100 to $300 per child; retirement grants will be doubled from $400 to $800; invalidity grants will be doubled from $400 to $800; survivor's grants will be doubled from $400 to $800; sickness and injury benefits will be extended to include Sundays and benefits will be paid from the third day of incapacity instead of the fourth. Additionally, benefits would start from day one if the period of incapacity is not less than fourteen consecutive days, thus eliminating pay-outs from the employer. The proposal also states that commuting workers will now be covered for accidents suffered while traveling to and from work.

    Marta Hendrikx gave a brief preview of the symposium followed by presentations from each of the managers explaining their individual department changes. Rights and responsibilities of the employer and employee were also discussed. It was noted that employees must register themselves now and receive a proper Social Security card. Employers were cautioned not to employ those without a valid card. Proper record keeping and filing timely claims were stressed as important. It was noted that anyone who was dissatisfied with the outcome of a claim may file an appeal and an appointed Tribunal and lawyer will review the case.

    A question and answer period was then held. Several of those attending had inquiries, starting with the "3.34 million dollar question" and how "missing funds" could be alleviated in the future. Ms. Garcia noted that it had been determined that there was not enough evidence to make a conviction in the case and that lawyer's fees were paid in excess of one million dollars over a two-year period, thus the SS Board had opted to not lose further funds in a legal dispute. She further stated that it was the Investment Committee that was responsible for these monies and an amendment to the Social Security Act would be needed to change things. When questioned how to go about this, the General Manager explained that a lawyer would need to make the initial recommendation and then the proposed amendment would come back to the people for their feelings on the matter, which would then be heard by the National Assembly. It was emphasized by management, however, that all these proposals, including the increase in premiums to be paid by workers and employees, are "not yet set in stone" and that is why the countrywide consultation is being carried out. Some people were skeptical regarding the increases because of the additional costs proposed in the National Health Insurance scheme. A question was raised as to whether the list of illnesses would be revised since many were outdated and others were not included. It was replied that this subject would also be addressed by the Board. A final concern was raised over the burden employers accepted in paying their employees after the threat of Hurricane Mitch and why Social Security did not offer their assistance since it was an act of God. Although Ms. Garcia explained she was not with Social Security at that time, she said the Board would be looking into this matter and checking the plans of other islands in the Caribbean. In answer to a question concerning the time it would take to decide on these changes, the General Manager stated employer and employee views would now be taken back to Cabinet. The Board will be meeting with different organizations for more input and another actuarial study will be done. This actuary will be available for consultation and the project should be completed in three to five months.

    In closing, it was mentioned that people requiring more information may go to Social Security's website. Additionally, they may E-mail suggestions to
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