A virtual UIF office will enable you to apply for unemployment benefits online.

This article was first published in the fourth-quarter 2012 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

Quietly, behind the scenes, the Unem-ployment Insurance Fund (UIF) is developing a virtual office that will surely be welcomed by people who are unemployed, sick or pregnant.

The online office will in future enable you to claim UIF benefits for unemployment, illness, maternity and adoption without having to visit a labour office and stand in a queue – a particularly onerous requirement for those who are sick or pregnant, have recently given birth or adopted a child, or cannot afford to travel.

Currently, employers use an online system, known as uFiling, to register their employees, declare their wages or salaries, and pay contributions to the UIF.

However, employees or former employees who want to claim benefits can use uFiling only to download the forms required to lodge a claim. To initiate a claim, they have to visit a labour office. This could soon be a thing of the past.

Another welcome feature of the virtual UIF office is that your claim may be processed faster. Ron Warren, chairman of payroll company NuQ, says that, during tests of the system, he has seen claims paid in days rather than weeks as is the case with claims lodged at labour offices.

The UIF is testing a pilot of its virtual office using data from six companies and the claims from their UIF contributors.

At the time this article went to print, the fund was not able to say when it will be ready to launch its new service to all UIF contributors.

Any employee who works for 24 hours or more a month – including domestic and farm workers – is required to contribute to the UIF. From October this year, employees contribute one percent of their income up to an income of R178 464 a year (or R14 872 a month) and employers contribute a further one percent of their income up to R178 464 a year.

Unemployment benefits can be claimed if you lose your job because your employer terminated your services or your contract – you cannot claim if you resign or abscond. It is best to claim unemployment benefits as soon as possible, but you must claim within six months of losing your job.

The period for which you can claim depends on how long you contributed to the fund, but the maximum period is 34 weeks. You also need to register with the Department of Labour as a work-seeker.

You can claim an illness benefit if you are unable to work for 14 consecutive days or more and you are not paid, or you are paid only part of your wage or salary, while you are ill.

Illness benefits can be claimed more than once a year for up to 34 weeks.

You can claim maternity benefits for a maximum of 17 weeks if your employer does not pay you, or pays only a portion of your normal wage or salary, while you are on maternity leave.

Adoption benefits are available to anyone who adopts a child under the age of two and takes unpaid leave or receives only part of their salary while caring for the child. You can claim until your benefits are exhausted or you go back to work.

The key to the success of the virtual UIF office will be obtaining buy-in from employers.

You will be able to claim your UIF benefits online only if your employer has registered for uFiling and is accredited as an employer with the UIF fund.

In August, employers using uFiling were sent a letter asking them to complete a form so they can be accredited to use the virtual office.

Over 1.4 million employers are registered with the UIF but just over 3 000 had been accredited by mid-September, UIF spokesperson Muzi Mkhwanazi says.

The form for accreditation sent to employers of domestic workers requests the most basic information and a signature.

If an employer is not registered for uFiling, it must not only apply for accreditation but also register for uFiling.

Many employers of domestic workers and small business owners use uFiling to upload the personal details of employees, and to file monthly declarations of what their employees earn and the UIF contributions that have been deducted.

After making the declaration, employers can make their UIF payment online.

Large companies submit their declarations for hundreds or thousands of employees by sending the UIF an extract of their payrolls, which the UIF uploads electronically. These employers will continue to do this once the virtual office goes live, but it is envisaged that the file will be uploaded via uFiling.

Large employers will be able to register on uFiling to submit ad hoc declarations, such as terminations or employees taking maternity leave, before month- end, when the payroll file is submitted to the UIF.

Once the claims side of the virtual office is ready to be rolled out, the employees of an employer accredited with the UIF will be able to register on the uFiling website (www.ufiling.co.za).

You, as an employee, will need your identity number, your banking details and your email address to complete the registration process.

Once you have registered as a user, you will be able to lodge a claim for benefits. The UIF will notify your employer or former employer if you claim.

UIF claimants will receive a unique reference number when they lodge a claim, and they will be able to use this number to track their claims.

Your employer will then be expected to do its part on uFiling. For example, if an employer has retrenched you, it must complete a UI-19 form stating that your employment has been terminated.

If an employer fails to submit a UI-19 and an employee’s employment history is not updated, the fund will attempt to contact the employer and urge it to furnish the fund with the outstanding

UI-19. If the employer is a uFiler but not accredited, a UI-19 will be sent via uFiling for it to complete.

If the employer does not comply with the request to complete the UI-19 declaration, the Department of Labour will send inspection and enforcement officials to the employer.

If you are claiming an illness, a maternity or an adoption benefit, you will have to submit certain documents – for example, a doctor’s certificate stating that you are ill or pregnant, or confirmation from a court that you have adopted a child.

The UIF will send you a request for the relevant document via email. This must then be completed and faxed back to the number indicated on the form.

Once the virtual UIF office has received the required details from both you and your employer, your claim will be processed and the benefits due to you will be paid into your bank account.

Mkhwanazi says death benefits for the dependants of UIF contributors cannot, at this stage, be claimed online, but the virtual office may later expand to include such claims.

Dependants must claim within six months of the UIF contributor dying, and the benefits are available for 34 weeks.

To prevent fraud, employers will be encouraged to register new employees as soon as they are employed and immediately complete the necessary online declarations when someone is dismissed. The quicker these forms are completed, the less chance there is for fraud, Mkhwanazi says.

The UIF declined to answer questions about how it will prevent fraudulent claims once the virtual office has been launched. It said a response might alert potential fraudsters to the security measures that have been built into the system.

UIF benefits are based on a formula that takes into account the period for which you were employed and contributed to the fund and the income you earned at the time you became unemployed, or, in the case of maternity benefits, went on maternity leave.

In the case of dependant benefits, the income the family breadwinner was earning when he or she died is taken into consideration.

You earn credits based on the length of time you have been employed and have contributed to the fund. For every six calendar days for which you are employed, you earn one day’s credit, up to 238 days.

You will have to be employed for a total of four years to build up the maximum number of credits, which are based on calendar days and not the actual days you worked. If you have been employed for less than four years, you can still claim from the UIF, but you will qualify for benefits only up to the number of days’ credit you have accumulated.

The rate at which benefits are paid to you depends on your income. The lowest-paid workers receive benefits at a rate of 60 percent of their income, whereas higher-paid workers receive a lower percentage.

From October 1 this year, if you earn R178 464 a year, or R14 872 a month, or R3 432 a week, you will receive benefits of only 38 percent of your income. Anyone who earns more than these amounts will also receive benefits based on 38 percent of R178 464 a year, or R14 872 a month, or R3 432 a week.

The rate at which benefits are paid is unlikely to change once the virtual office is introduced, but receiving the money quicker is likely to be worth a lot to many.