Social Senator Breitenbach (Left) believes that more people will lose their jobs in the Corona crisis – and hopes for help from the federal government.
Elke Breitenbach (Left), Social Senator Photo: picture allianceCarsten Koalldpa
site: Ms. Breitenbach, the unemployment rate in Berlin was 10 percent in May for the first time since 2015. How pessimistic are you that the numbers will continue to rise drastically?
Elke Breitenbach: I’m not pessimistic or optimistic; I’m paid to look for solutions. But I assume that even more people will become unemployed. We don’t just have to look at the number of unemployed, but also at those who are currently receiving short-time benefits.
How many people does that mean in Berlin?
One in three companies has registered for short-time work, affecting a good 33,000 people in May according to statistics from the German Federal Agency. But we won’t know how many people are actually on short-time work until the end of June – that’s when the accounts are drawn up.
born in 1961, is an educator, political scientist, ex-union secretary and since 2016 left-wing Senator for Integration, Labor and Social Affairs.
Don’t we have to assume that short-time work is often the first step into unemployment?
In fact, I don’t assume that everyone will get back to work. We have to work together with the social partners, the regional directorate of the Federal Employment Agency and at the federal level to find solutions to this problem.
What do you think of the German government’s new rescue package? Doesn’t it also contain good approaches for Berliners?
(thinks) So for the families, there is a good approach with the 300 euros that are to be given per child. There’s also a proposal to provide financial support to companies that have been hit by the crisis but still offer training. That’s the right step, which we had also considered for Berlin. What I find extremely disappointing, however, is that no thought was given to low-income earners when it comes to short-time allowances. We have a lot of people with low incomes in Berlin. If they are now on short-time work, they first get 60 percent, if they have children, 67 percent of their last income. These people have financial hardships! They fall into the poverty trap. The same applies to those with low unemployment benefits I or Hartz IV. The crisis has increased the cost of living. At the same time, support services such as free school meals or the food bank with food donations have been eliminated. This plight of all low-income earners, including the unemployed, has not been considered by the federal government.
What should it have done?
We had introduced a Bundesrat initiative: people who receive transfer payments would get 100 euros more a month until the crisis was over. But the Bundesrat "scuttled" this initiative in committee, i.e., postponed it until sometime. And this idea was not taken up in the federal government’s new aid package either. This means that there is no financial support for people who are in financial need, unless they have children and benefit from the family bonus. Pensioners on basic benefits, for example, are also hard hit. This is bitter, because all these people need support and help now.
What could the Senate do here?
We were and are exemplary in Berlin when it comes to protective shields and the like to cushion poverty. In addition, just to give one example, we have also supported the food banks, not with money, but with "real" help, so that food could be delivered. We have also opened a protective umbrella for the providers, who offer counseling and support, for example. We continue to pay them the money because we assume that they will continue to help and advise people – albeit in a different way than before. The agencies have found creative solutions and have not left people on their own. But we are reaching our limits with unemployment benefits, basic security and the Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act – these are federal benefits. We can only demand that benefits be increased.
Back to the employment situation. Couldn’t the Senate expand the public employment sector, in other words: the Solidary Basic Income – SBU for short?
I’ve already suggested that, and I’ll come back to it. But since the Hartz laws, the federal government has been responsible for labor market policy measures. We support these programs with coaching and training. That’s why we’re now very much hoping to find out whether or not the federal government is planning new programs. We are preparing ourselves for the fact that there will have to be more qualification measures. Because if we look at the structure of the unemployed, those who don’t have a high school diploma continue to be particularly affected – as do many refugees.
We were very pleased that many refugees have recently found their way into work and training relatively quickly. But we have noticed that many of them have arrived in the low-wage sector due to a lack of qualifications or recognition of their vocational qualifications. That is why we had just started to specifically qualify refugees – and here we have now indeed been set back a bit by the crisis. I now want to take a close look at what experience we have with the Solidarity Basic Income – an evaluation will start soon. If it turns out that this is indeed a way to integrate people into the primary labor market, then we should continue down this path. As a first step, we should see at the end of the year whether we extend the program and then whether we take on even more employees than the planned 1,000.
So far, only 300 of the planned 1,000 SBU positions have been filled. Why?
First, all applications have to be carefully reviewed by employers – that takes time. Second, the job offers go to the job centers and they offer them to the unemployed. It is not a compulsion to take an SBU job, but people apply voluntarily. Then interviews take place and the companies decide who to take. We had always said that these positions would be filled successively over the year 2020. So we are satisfied with the 338 positions that have been filled, as of the end of May. But, as is also clear, the Corona epidemic has delayed everything. The job centers have first deployed all available forces to pay out benefits as quickly as possible. And many companies are holding off on hiring because of the crisis. For me, however, there is no reason to say that the Solidarity-Based Basic Income is a failure. On the contrary.
Why the opposite?
There are many applications, people are interested. The initial feedback is encouraging: some companies have told us that they want to take on SBU employees.
The topic of training: What actually happens to apprentices who can’t work right now because their company is on short-time working?
In May, we published a joint declaration on training with social partners and the regional directorate of the employment agency, which we are now implementing so that trainees who are about to graduate can take their exams. The second problem was to do something where practical training cannot currently take place – for example, with cooks in hotels, who had nothing to do to begin with. We took care of that, too.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
We are still waiting for feedback from the companies as to which sectors need specific help. One idea was to employ trainees in public training centers, for example in training kitchens. But now it’s all about the new training year: The students who leave school in the summer have been looking for a training place for some time. But there has been no career counseling, not even in most youth job agencies. But we need this support for school leavers right now, and we want to ramp up the work of the youth job agencies again as quickly as possible.
Do you expect even more young people to be without a training place in September than every year anyway?
Yes, of course. We already know that there will be more than 1,200 fewer training places than in the past. And that was already not enough. There is an agreement with the chambers and the employers’ associations that we will receive more detailed information from them on the individual sectors. We urgently need these to know in which areas we can best offer and finance additional extra-company training places, because many companies do not see themselves in a position to do so for the time being.
How do you intend to do this?
We have the Berlin training program, which is extra-company training places, of which there are currently 500. Of these, 250 are currently occupied. We are preparing to increase the number of places by up to 1,000. That will be a real feat for the providers, because they don’t yet have the resources and personnel. But we also expect that not all companies will withdraw and that those who can will also train above their needs. Together with the governing mayor, for example, I will ask the state-owned companies to train significantly more apprentices than they need, so that we can offer graduates career prospects.
On Thursday in the House of Representatives, your party colleague Katina Schubert also asked the state-owned companies and the public sector to train beyond their needs and to set an example. Can’t the Senate do more than just ask?
We don’t have to ask in the public sector; here we have to check where we have further capacity. After all, training requires certain prerequisites, such as a workplace and trainers. Companies with a state share provide training in many areas, and that is why we are also appealing to them to assume their social responsibility and offer more training positions. These companies and the public sector must set a good example.