Gaps in COVID-19 Support Schemes

Parliamentary Speech, Committee of Supply Debate, Fortitude Budget, 5 Jun 2020

The Government has signalled that the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) is an important piece in the array of COVID-19 welfare schemes by pumping in $800 million as part of the Fortitude Budget. However, I would like to bring attention to several aspects of the scheme that obstruct it from fully meeting the needs of those who need it most.

First, its overly strict eligibility criteria. Applicants have to first show that they have lost or will lose income over three months. For those whose initial conditions of no pay leave or reduced income do not reflect at least three months, they will have to wait to become eligible for CSG. This will be the case for most employees, especially lower wage workers, many of whom who do not even have a document from their employers spelling out conditions of leave. It would be inconceivable to expect employers who lay off employees to provide a confirmation that the employee will have three months of income lost, nor is it logical to expect individuals to show loss of future income of at least three months now.

From May 2020, there is no interim support scheme that can help to tide such individuals over. Further, the amount and duration of support provided under CSG is ungenerous, especially when compared to the Self-employed Persons Income Relief Scheme (SIRS). Crucially, members of society in precarious positions are excluded from CSG, such as individuals with no bank account or daily-rated workers.

Hence, I recommend that the Government reduce the required period for involuntary no pay leave or duration of income loss from three consecutive months to one month and allow individuals with no bank account and daily-rated or ad hoc workers to be eligible for CSG. The duration of support should also be extended from three months to nine months or when applicants are able to secure a job, whichever is earlier.

If the Ministry disagrees, individuals who have been financially affected by COVID-19 will be forced to apply for ComCare financial assistance in the interim or after they have exhausted their full CSG payout. Given the almost five-fold difference in income eligibility criteria of CSG versus ComCare, will the Ministry consider enhancements to ComCare such as: (a) increasing the income eligibility caps for ComCare and (b) increasing the flexibility with regard to supporting documents required? For instance, instead of strictly requiring bank statements, one could be allowed to produce documents that show job or income loss.

The Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social and Family Development (Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim): Mr Chairman, the COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) supports lower to middle income Singaporeans or Permanent Residents who, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19, are presently (a) involuntarily unemployed due to retrenchment or contract termination; (b) placed on involuntary no-pay leave (NPL) for at least three consecutive months; or © experiencing reduced monthly salary of at least 30% for at least three consecutive months.

While MSF provides support for affected employees through CSG, employees are also supported through the Jobs Support Scheme. Self-employed persons are mainly supported through the Self-employed Persons Income Relief Scheme or SIRS.

Employees who have lost their jobs can apply for CSG immediately without waiting for three months.

Employees who are placed on involuntary NPL or experiencing reduced monthly salary need not wait till they are affected for three consecutive months to apply. They are eligible for CSG if their NPL or salary loss has already started and they provide supporting documents, such as a letter from their employer, showing that the involuntary NPL or salary reduction will be for at least three consecutive months. The “three or moreconsecutive months” requirement for involuntary no pay leave and salary loss scenarios is to ensure that help is channelled to those who have greater needs.

Daily-rated and ad hoc workers may qualify for CSG if they meet the eligibility criteria. Workers who do not have employment contracts due to the nature of their work may approach their nearest Social Service Offices or SSOs to make a self declaration on their employment status. This includes daily-rated and ad hoc workers. SSOs will undertake further checks against applicants’ past CPF records and facilitate their CSG application if they qualify. Individuals eligible for CSG and without bank accounts can approach SSOs for assistance.

Those who are ineligible for CSG and are in financial need can apply for ComCare, which provides financial assistance for basic living expenses and other support such as household bill expenses and medical expenses. In general, those who are newly placed on ComCare will receive at least six months of assistance, which provides them with a longer runway to regain stability.

For those with urgent financial needs, SSOs, grassroots organisations and Family Service Centres can provide them with ComCare Interim Assistance.

ComCare Short-to-Medium-Term Assistance (SMTA) and Interim Assistance have income eligibility criteria of a monthly household income of $1,900 and below or per capita household income of $650 and below.

The Chairman: Senior Parliamentary Secretary Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, please wrap up.

Assoc Prof Dr Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim: These are not hard thresholds and each case is considered on its own merit. Supporting documents including bank statements and payslips enable SSOs to accurately assess the applicants’ circumstances, savings and needs. SSOs exercise flexibility as needed to provide the necessary financial assistance and social support. SSOs can conduct their interviews and assessments electronically and applicants can submit their supporting documents via email.

Finally, Mr Chairman, while CSG is open for applications from May 2020 till September 2020, the Government will continue to review our support schemes for those who need help, taking into account how the COVID-19 situation evolves.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Anthea Ong is a Nominated Member of Parliament. (A Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) is a Member of the Parliament of Singapore who is appointed by the President. They are not affiliated to any political party and do not represent any constituency. There are currently nine NMPs in Parliament.)

The multi-sector perspective that comes from her ground immersion of 12 years in different capacities helps her translate single-sector issues and ideas across boundaries without alienating any particular community/group. As an entrepreneur and with many years in business leadership, it is innate in her to discuss social issues with the intent of finding solutions, or at least of exploring possibilities. She champions mental health, diversity and inclusion — and climate change in Parliament.

She is also an impact entrepreneur/investor and a passionate mental health advocate, especially in workplace wellbeing. She started WorkWell Leaders Workgroup in May 2018 to bring together top leaders (CXOs, Heads of HR/CSR/D&I) of top employers in Singapore (both public and private) to share, discuss and co-create inclusive practices to promote workplace wellbeing. Anthea is also the founder of Hush TeaBar, Singapore’s 1st silent teabar and a social movement that aims to bring silence, self care and social inclusion into every workplace, every community — with a cup of tea. The Hush Experience is completely led by lovingly-trained Deaf facilitators, supported by a team of Persons with Mental Health Issues (PMHIs).

Follow Anthea Ong on her public page at www.facebook.com/antheaonglaytheng

A full-time human, and part-time everything else.