19 August 2020

“My employer has stolen my money” – Complexities and gravitas of navigating through the TERS process

Submitted by Linda Janse Van Vuuren
“My employer has stolen my money” – Complexities and gravitas of navigating through the TERS process

Monday the 23rd of March 2020 is a day I’ll never forget, a day my world collapsed around me and a day I became convinced I would meet with financial ruin.

President Ramaphosa announced that in order to best protect the nation from the oncoming COVID-19 pandemic we would need to shut down, in the most literal sense. Shut down my business, close my doors, and go home. I didn’t sleep that night, or the next.

I run a small business and I operate from month to month, I do not have capital to fall back on. My rainy day had arrived and I had no answers. I had no time to prepare and I had no means to earn an income while I wasn’t allowed to operate. I was vividly aware that the lockdown would likely run beyond the 21 day initial plan and I entered a tail-spin. I believed with every fibre of my being that I would not financially survive this and I was acutely aware of the resulting impact on myself, my family and my employees.

I had no idea how I was going to navigate through the maze of uncertainty that lay ahead. I knew that my suppliers would be forced to shut down and my client base would no longer be allowed to support me. Without an income, I would not be able to pay my staff, honour my financial responsibilities, pay my creditors or put food on my table. This was, from day 1, a crisis of massive proportions for me.

With the country in a state of disaster I found myself adrift and trying to keep my head above water. Businesses around me were closing down and I felt hopeless.

I saw two ways in which the situation could play out; either I found a way to survive the lockdown, or I closed my doors and laid my staff off. Option number two made me sick to my stomach and I knew that I needed help.

In my search for help I came across TERS, the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme. It was developed for financial aid to support businesses who were unable to pay the salaries of their employees during the lockdown period.

I entered the TERS website and excitedly started the application process but my elation was short lived. It quickly became clear that the system was overloaded and simply not able to manage the capacity of traffic coming across it. I kept getting booted off of the site, the site kept crashing completely and I found myself getting nowhere. I attempted to call the TERS hotline but I couldn’t get through and when I did get through they were unable to assist me. I was lost, confused and even more stressed than before. With a sinking heart, I realised again that I needed help.

It was at this point that a friend in a similar situation referred me to a WhatsApp Group called Business Relief. I was given a QR code to scan which automatically routed me into the group. I found around 250 other business owners working together to navigate the lockdown and find solutions. Along with the TERS application process the group also highlighted other avenues of funding available to struggling businesses.

The difficulties in navigating the TERS application process were varied and complex so I won’t go into too much detail, however there were common occurring themes, many of which I had experienced during my initial attempts to claim TERS. Technical Glitches resulted in applications simply not being accepted or being rejected with no reasoning. In many cases where the employer chose to upload their employees details via CSV files the system would not accept them and employee details needed to be uploaded one-by-one, for larger companies this became a major issue.

Another common theme was a growing mistrust between employers and employees. The TERS website was often displaying conflicting information and the information on the website did not line up with payments made / successful applications. In extreme circumstances this led to employees believing that their employers were being dishonest and stealing their TERS benefits; one member of the group reported receiving death threats when they were doing everything possible to assist their staff. The situation was made worse when the government entertained the idea of issuing TERS payments directly to employees.

This shift massively prejudiced not only the employer but more importantly the employee; certain businesses who were in the position to make advanced payments opted to stop as the risk was simply too high. They could not be 100% certain they would receive these funds back.

However, through the mist we started to see success stories, businesses on the group making headway and receiving their TERS payments. It quickly became clear that the success rate of applications on the group was rising and to me, it came down to the expertise of the MASA team and the collaborative efforts of the group as a whole. The success of one member assisted in guiding the next. It gave me a sense of inclusion and it reassured me that I wasn’t alone. One person who was particularly active on the group and who many of us owe our success to is Lynne Proude, the HR director of the MASA Group. Lynne has made herself available for direct contact throughout my involvement in the group and when I became truly lost it was her guidance that pulled me through.

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Intrigued by the success of the WhatsApp group I was compelled to reach out to the founder, Wayne Stainforth. Wayne was unwilling to go on the record as he advised that the creation of the WhatsApp group was an altruistic effort and not for benefit; this intrigued me even more so I started digging and discovered that he is the CEO of the Measured Ability Group of Companies which comprises MASA who are experts in matters concerning Blue-Collar Staffing Solutions, Labour Hire, Human Resources, Industrial Relations and Payroll Services and Greys Recruitment who are temporary and permanent staffing providers.

I called my original referral who forwarded me a MASA terms of business and from this I gleaned that this was not the first benefit of this sort that the group of companies were involved in and established that they were currently providing bursaries to under-privileged children, they were supporting under-privileged schools with uniforms and investing into previously disadvantaged businesses. According to their portfolio Wayne had historically funded a bus to collect street children and deliver them to places of safety, upgraded the children’s playground equipment at Mitchells Park, donated funds to Boystown, SOS Children’s Villages, SPCA and Childline, funded the LIFE Project for the employment and upliftment of vagrants into employed and dignified job positions. Further digging revealed that he was also the champion and chairman of the Florida Road Special Ratings Area in Durban, (i.e the Florida Road UIP) which had been the catalyst that resulted in the entire upliftment of the Morningside area.

As with many South Africans, I’m still uncertain as to what the future holds but my doors are still open and my staff are still employed. I believe that one of the driving factors behind the success of the WhatsApp group is the number of community leaders and business owners who were involved at one point or another. Due to the WhatsApp restrictions on the number of members allowed in a group we saw businesses who had been successful in their applications leaving to make space for newer members in need of assistance. It’s my belief that more than 500 businesses have moved through the group to date and as a result I truly believe that tens of thousands of employees have benefitted from the group effort and information shared on the group.

I don’t believe that the founders of the group, MASA Outsourcing / Wayne Stainforth, or the members who supported me will ever know the impact that they had on me and my future during this lockdown and this alone is what drove me to write this article. I remain eternally thankful to all that were involved in my success thus far.