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‘Stopgap’ or life saver?: Italy’s scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis

Italy's freelancers and self-employed were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with their livelihoods threatened by the sudden loss of income. The Italian government put in a place a scheme to help them survive, but how well did it achieve its aim?

'Stopgap' or life saver?: Italy's scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis
Youth gather for an aperitif drink outside a bar in the Trastevere district of Rome. AFP

In her second year of working as an English teacher in Milan, Jenna Leary from West Yorkshire, UK, suddenly found herself among the millions in Italy who lost their incomes almost overnight when the coronavirus lockdown on March 10th.

“As a freelancer, I had almost nothing to fall back on,” she says. “All I could think was ‘how am I going to pay my rent?’”

“Suddenly I needed to find out how the social security system works here, which is not something I had ever thought about before, and is beyond my level of Italian.”

The teacher had no choice but to apply for the 600-euro emergency payment, known as the indennità or “bonus 600”, created by the government to help the self-employed through the shutdown.

It was announced a week after the nationwide lockdown measures were enforced.

The “bonus 600” policy was introduced as part of a 25-billion-euro aid package in the so-called “Cura Italia” (“Italy Cure”) decree, signed on March 17th, which Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said was “for the benefit of the Italian economic system.”

The payment was made available to freelance contractors, self-employed workers, seasonal workers in tourism, agricultural workers, and entertainment workers, who’d need to have an Italian partita IVA (VAT number) and to be able to demonstrate that they had lost at least two-thirds of their income.

‘100 requests per second’

The scheme opened for applications on April 1st. Almost two months later, some of those who applied within the first few weeks say they’re still waiting for their money.

Things didn’t get off to a promising start. On the day applications opened, the INPS website crashed and malfunctioned as INPS said “up to 100 requests per second” were being submitted, something the agency’s director said had “never been seen before”.

Despite these initial problems, millions were able to submit their applications. Data from INPS showed that 4.74 million applications were received in the first month – between April 1st and April 27th. Of those, 3.45 million had been approved.

INPS stated at the end of April that it had processed most of these first applications and had sent out payments by April 17th.

However, there have been widespread reports of delays and issues with the application process.

INPS data shows some 630,000 of those applications were still waiting to be processed at the time of writing.

Photo: AFP

Around 300,000 had been rejected because the claimant was already receiving a pension, or the reddito di cittadinanza, a type of unemployment benefit.

And another 225,000 had been rejected for entering details, such as their IBAN number, incorrectly. Those applications could be amended and resubmitted, the INPS said.

‘Huge time pressures’

“Clearly the scheme had to be set up under huge time pressures, but it has a number of defects,” commented Judith Ruddock, a partner at Italian-British accountancy firm Studio del Gaizo Picchioni.

“The main problem we have encountered is that the application procedure is not connected to INPS records,” she explained. “This means that for each client we need to input their address details even though INPS already has these, and any slight deviation from the address held by INPS results in the issue of a message requiring the client to wait to be contacted to clarify the discrepancy.”

“As you can imagine, with so many claimants the waiting time to be contacted is very long.”

The firm advises clients to call the INPS’ numero verde (freephone number), but say clients report various problems in doing so, with one having to call the number 72 times before getting a response, and others saying the advertised English-language support wasn’t available.

Teacher Jenna Leary was among them. A few weeks after she’d made her claim, she explained, INPS contacted her about “irregularities” with her address.

“They demanded a certificate of proof of residence, which is impossible to get at this time with offices closed,” she said.

“I called their hotline repeatedly, as it claimed support was available in English. It took me days to get through, and of course no one spoke English and the staff were rude and impatient,” she said.

“I managed to confirm my details, the staff said the claim was being processed, and hung up without giving me a reference number or anything.”

Over a month later, she says she still hasn’t heard back or received any payments and is currently relying on financial support from her family.

Some claimants also said the application process itself was unclear.

James Tucker, a teacher in Italy’s public school system, says he’s still waiting for his claim to be processed.

“I signed up on the INPS website, I followed the instructions and after a day I was sent half of the 16-digit pin via SMS, the remaining eight digits were to be sent via post.”

“Still at this moment I have received nothing. I’ve called multiple times, after being on hold for 30 minutes plus, only to then speak with someone, who in turn transfers me to someone else, only for that person to hang up the phone.”

“I believe that I’ll never have the chance to claim the emergency funds, even though I’m a school teacher and sports teacher and fully entitled to the payment,” he said, adding that he now has “zero income”.

‘I received the money within one week’

Though it is apparently not made clear during the application process, INPS have in fact waived the requirement for the second, postal part of the pin, Rudduck confirmed – though “this has also caused a little confusion when the second parts arrive by mail and clients don’t understand what to do with them.”

One applicant who received the 600-euro payment successfully is George Young, a freelance translator from the UK living in Trento, northern Italy.

“I received the payment within about a week of the application going on. It all seemed very smooth,” he said, explaining that the application was made via his accountant.

“Although, that said, I didn’t apply until 2-3 weeks after it was initially launched so the INPS system was not as overloaded by that time.”

At the same time, George says his wife applied for Italy’s unemployment benefit (NASpI) which he says was “really quick”, with the first payment arriving within three weeks.

“The process has really impressed me, as has the amount received. Obviously my expectations have been managed by the equivalent benefit in the UK which seems to take longer and pay much, much less,” he said.

Italy is not the only European country to have brought in this type of emergency payment system for the self-employed following the coronavirus shutdown.

Germany, for example, announced its own Emergency Aid Programme (das Soforthilfe-Programm) which includes a €50 billion hardship fund to give grants to small businesses, the self-employed and freelancers.

As Germany is a federal country, individual states have also set up their own schemes, sometimes with differing criteria and conditions.

In Berlin, up until the end of May, applicants who have up to five employees including freelancers can get up to €9,000, while small businesses with up to 10 employees are allowed up to €15,000.

The process of applying for the German scheme has been quite straightforward, with payments made in as little as 48 hours in some cases. The scheme has had both praise and criticism over the size of the payments and the speed with which they’re being issued.

Residents go about their activities on May 20, 2020 in Codogno, southeast of Milan, one of the villages at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in February. AFP

‘A stopgap at best’

In Italy, the most obvious problem with the “bonus 600” is the size of the payments, which is often not sufficient to cover a monthly rent payment: the average rent in the country is around 600 euros a month.

However, rent prices are far higher in most cities, and can rise to double that amount in Italy’s economic capital, Milan – which is often where foreigners are able to find work in the country.

The policy is “a stopgap at best,” said Federico Santi, a senior Europe analyst at Eurasia Group.  

The 600-euro payments might be “barely enough” to cover basic necessities – food, bills, rent – “in lower-income regions or areas, at least for households with multiple incomes,” he said.

The flat payment doesn’t take into account the large differences in the cost of living between regions, and is not based on the recipient’s past income. 

“The government opted for a flat payment in order to expedite the process and cap the overall bill – and, more cynically, knowing income statements for the self-employed are often not representative,” Santi explained.

For Italy’s self-employed foreign residents, there’s another issue: the lack of support available in languages other than Italian, which leaves them at a disadvantage when trying to access these vital emergency funds.

‘Improvements could be made’

The system could be improved, Ruddock said, “firstly by allowing professionals to liaise with INPS directly in relation to client applications. This would have meant that we could have managed the process without needing to ask our clients to intervene to resolve discrepancies. Many of our clients are not confident in speaking Italian, particularly on the phone and particularly with an institute like INPS.”

“The second major improvement would be if the system was automatically connected to INPS records, so that by inserting the codice fiscale of the client, the address details would appear automatically. This would have saved a huge amount of time and expense in sorting out “discrepancies” which generally were only an alternative method of writing the same address.”

After weeks of uncertainty, the Italian government confirmed on May 16th that the “bonus 600” monthly payment would be extended to cover April and May, although it’s not known if it could continue beyond that

“It’s not sustainable for more than a few months,” Santi from Eurasia group said, “as goes for many of the economic support measures adopted by the government, however generous.”

“A majority of businesses have re-opened this month, but many have not – so there is pressure to extend the payments to June and possibly July,” he explained, adding that other benefits have been extended for longer.

“Beyond that would be a challenge. Of course, this partly depends on the epidemiological picture,” he said.

The government also announced that a higher payment of up to 1000 euros would also be made available to cover losses in May, though the conditions for application for the higher sum have not yet been published.

A spokesperson for INPS declined to answer any questions regarding the “bonus 600” payments.

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local’s journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what’s worked, what hasn’t, and why.
 
This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
 
The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.
 
Creative Commons Licence
‘Stopgap’ or life saver?: Italy’s scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis by Clare Speak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://www.thelocal.it/20200530/how-well-is-italys-bonus-600-payment-for-the-self-employed-really-working.

Member comments

  1. Interesting article, I have an Italian accountant for my ‘tasse’ and I work in electronic engineering and teach English, my income fell off a cliff under lock down losing over 1,500€ a month. My accountant handled everything regarding these payments and I have experienced no problems at all..

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QUALITY OF LIFE

Cost of living: How does Italy compare to the rest of the world in 2022?

Italy has recorded lower costs of living than the UK and US so far for 2022 after outstripping both last year. Here's a closer look at how everyday outgoings compare.

How Italy stacks up for cost of living compared to the rest of the world.
How Italy stacks up for cost of living compared to the rest of the world. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

It’s a common belief that the cost of living in Italy is generally cheap and cheerful, and this is often thought to explain the nation’s comparatively low wages.

However, Italy in fact outpaced both the UK and the US for living expenses last year, ranking as the 26th most expensive country in the world.

Good news for those living in or travelling to Italy this year, though – the latest figures for 2022 show that Italy has now slid down the scale, behind the UK and US, coming 32nd in the global ranking, according to Numbeo’s Cost of Living Index for 2022.

It is classified as being cheaper than France (19th), the UK (26th), the US (27th), and the famously expensive Switzerland – which was ranked second most expensive in the world for the second year running. And once again, Bermuda placed first.

The survey was compiled using the notoriously expensive city of New York City as a benchmark. New York was given an index score of 100. So a country with a score higher than 100 is more expensive than New York, while below signals that it is cheaper.

READ ALSO: The parts of Italy where house prices keep rising despite the pandemic

Italy scored 66.47 overall. It has got cheaper for groceries, dropping four places in the global scale and is now around 12 percentage points cheaper than the US, but is still more expensive than the UK.

While people in Italy have seen energy prices surge in January, with a knock-on effect on food prices and other costs, the same has also happened in many other countries.

Italy ranks 34th for a food shop compared to 36th place for the Brits. But it is cheaper than the US (19th), Canada (20th) and Australia (9th).

Compared to its European neighbours, you’ll pay more at the till for your weekly groceries in France (16th), Denmark (22nd) and Austria (26th). On the other hand, Italy is more expensive than Germany (41st) and Spain (54th) for supplies to stock your fridge.

In a separate recent survey specifically focussed on this aspect of living costs, Italy was in fact much higher up the scale for the cost and affordability of a grocery shop.

The findings from Net Credit are based on not just supermarket prices, but they also consider income. Researchers calculated the affordability of a basket of goods in each country as a percentage of the average daily wage.

Italy’s groceries can be expensive when you factor in the average salary. Photo by Axel Heimken / AFP

The shopping basket they surveyed focused on ten staples including breakfast cereal, eggs, cheese, milk and bread.

Factoring this in, Italy ranked 15th most expensive worldwide for the cost of groceries, calculated as being 33 percent of a daily salary.

Common expenditure prices in Italy

  • Milk – €1,15
  • Loaf of fresh white bread – €1,56
  • Local cheese (1kg) – €12,24
  • Beef (1kg) – €14,68
  • Bottle of wine (mid-range) – €5,00
  • Domestic Beer (0.5 litre draught) – €4,50
  • Meal per person at low-cost restaurant – €15,00
  • Three-course meal for 2, mid-range restaurant – €55,00
  • Monthly pass on public transport – €35,00
  • Petrol (per litre) – €1,62
  • Basic utilities (Electricity, gas, water, rubbish) for 85m2 Apartment – €162,79
  • Apartment rent (1 bedroom) in city centre – €588,95
  • Apartment rent (1 bedroom) outside of centre – €449,53
  • Price per square metre to buy an apartment in city centre – €3,092.74

Numbeo’s Cost of Living index, weighs up average estimates for expenses for a four-person family, ranging from clothing, groceries and dining out to transportation, recreational activities and utilities.

And its rent index is based on the costs of renting one- and three-bedroom apartments in and outside of city centres.

For this category, Italy ranked 44th out of 139 entries in total worldwide, compared to 37th last year. It again comes behind Spain, the UK, the US and Canada.

READ ALSO: The ten positives you’ll notice after moving to Italy from the US

Italy was found to be eleven points cheaper than the UK on average compared to eight points last year, and over 20 points cheaper than the US when it comes to rental accommodation.

Photo: Jürgen Scheeff on Unsplash

Restaurant bills – which were found to be higher on average in Italy than France, Germany, the US and the UK last year – have become relatively cheaper in 2022. Italy recorded around six percentage points lower than the UK for dining out, whereas it’s now about the same compared to the US.

It is still much more expensive than Spain, coming in at around 17 points more costly for eating out.

According to Numbeo’s country profile, the average Italian monthly salary after tax is €1,443.39 compared to $3,596.78 (€3,176.10) in the United States and £2,011.40 (€2,400) in the UK.

While salaries are lower in Italy and many living costs don’t differ greatly between Italy, the UK and the US, you can at least bank on a cheaper cappuccino in Italy.

On average, it will set you back €1.40 in Italy, compared to €3.87 in the US and €3.34 in the UK.

These three countries don’t differ that much for a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant, costing between €53 and €59.

Certain produce is more expensive in Italy such as local cheese and meat, but it costs less to use public transport overall.

Monthly utility bills were recorded as being higher in Italy than the US, but not the UK.

READ ALSO: Rising energy prices: How to save money on your bills in Italy

Meanwhile, average private monthly childcare costs in Italy are cheaper compared to the UK and US, based on one child attending full-time.

In its Cost of Living City index for 2022, Milan has ranked the highest for Italian cities coming in at 117th place out of 578 cities worldwide. It’s followed by Parma (148th) and Genoa (149th). Rome came 177th.

Parma recently came first in the country in a survey on the best and worst places to live in Italy. It took the title for its healthcare, work and business opportunities, level of environmental protection, life satisfaction levels and how it managed the Covid-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: The very best Italian towns to move to – according to people who live in them

Previous European studies have shown the cost of groceries, eating out, internet and communications to be relatively high in Italy.

Within Italy itself, there can be huge regional differences. Broadly speaking, the north of Italy tends to be more expensive than the south, and cities pricier than rural areas.

Milan is notorious for high rents, as are tourist hotspots including central Florence and Venice – and generally speaking people living in these areas will face higher costs for most goods and services.

But average recorded prices are brought down by the fact that it is relatively cheap to rent in small towns and villages, while the cost of services can also be markedly lower outside the major Italian cities.

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