‘Els van de RVO’ shows: a person works here, not a computer
She’s already had a lot of crying men on the phone. Yes, even crying women. “But the crying men stay with me more.” Els van der Ham is a customization coordinator at the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO), which implements the TVL fixed-cost subsidy. This Fixed Charges Allowance is one of the largest corona subsidies. Since the start of the crisis, the RVO has already awarded 4.6 billion euros to more than 250,000 applicants.
Van der Ham speaks to entrepreneurs who are in trouble. They risk missing out on the corona subsidies because they fall just outside the rules, or because they think they fall outside the rules. Difficult cases, peculiarities and distressing situations come to her department.
Like the entrepreneur who had not applied for fixed-cost subsidies last year: she thought she was not eligible. She ran into financial difficulties and eventually made the difficult decision to sell her cafe. But she was entitled to all subsidy rounds, until the moment she sold her cafe, Van der Ham’s department discovered.
Where is the border?
It was crucial that this entrepreneur had brief contact with the RVO during the first TVL round, last summer. A “pretty futile report”, says Van der Ham, “probably the problems were not so serious then.” Yet this was important: “Anyone who reported on time is entitled to a processing of the TVL application.” This does not always have to be with a formal application.
Van der Ham talks about it, together with her colleague Fleur Verspagen, in the RVO tower in the Bezuidenhout district of The Hague. On the walls of the square office room are large sheets of paper with yellow, pink and green post-its.
The most difficult cases are those in which people apply after the deadline. They are not entitled to a subsidy. But sometimes the circumstances are so dire that an exception is made. For example, if someone was seriously ill during the application period.
The question then is: where is the limit? Van der Ham: “Do you already make an exception if someone was only sick on the last possible application day? Or have you let it matter too much? Do you have to have been ill for at least a month, or the entire application period? Are you also lenient when a loved one has passed away? And what is a neighbor?”
Since last spring, Van der Ham’s customized team has been receiving advice on such fundamental questions from a special ‘sounding board group’, which includes experienced RVO employees.
The RVO may not just make exceptions to the rules. The government must be consistent: if you make too many exceptions, you run the risk of no longer treating people equally. But the law allows for exceptions in “special circumstances,” if the effects of the rules are “disproportionately” detrimental to a person.
In at least 349 cases, entrepreneurs have received a TVL subsidy that they would not have received without the intervention of the customized team. Can they give an example of that? Yes, says Van der Ham. She turns to Verspagen. “The treasurer, I think.” The treasurer, says Verspagen, was responsible for the bookkeeping of a sports club. But during the application period for the TVL subsidy, his entire family became ill: all corona. Verspagen: “His son came to live with him, along with the grandchildren. Mister was busy taking care of his family. Later he came to us for advice: guys, I completely forgot to apply for TVL.”
The sounding board group recommended making an exception. Verspagen: “These were unforeseen circumstances.” And the impact would be huge. “An entire association like this suffers,” says Van der Ham. The club had no one else who knew the accounts.
The RVO mainly makes exceptions in the event of ‘disease, death, fire or natural disasters’, says Van der Ham. Dire cases ‘that you cannot explain as entrepreneurial risk’.
No exception was made for ‘renovators’, as they are called by the RVO. Entrepreneurs who had less turnover in 2019 due to a renovation, exactly in the quarter that serves as a reference to determine how high the loss of turnover is now. That was a business risk.
However, the rules have recently been relaxed, under pressure from the House of Representatives. Since the second quarter of this year, entrepreneurs can also choose an alternative reference period for a new application.
Bailiff on the sidewalk
Halfway through the conversation there is a knock on the door and Verspagen walks away for a moment. “A manual payment has to be made,” explains Van der Ham. This happens in situations where a TVL applicant cannot wait for regular treatment by the system. “With this entrepreneur, the bailiff will not be on the doorstep tomorrow, but next week.”
The tailor-made team must ensure that they receive their money on time. “We are faster than the system,” she says. Yet such manual payments are labour-intensive: there are all kinds of checks to prevent errors and fraud. “We have to calculate very carefully and look at it with several people.”
Sometimes the ‘customized team’ can suffice with a referral. Such as the entrepreneur who got stuck with his TVL application because he has a completely paper administration. His local library was able to help him scan the relevant data.
Even more often, entrepreneurs simply want to ‘be heard’, says Van der Ham. They are stressed and wonder if their application has gone through. “Then we just need to reassure them: we haven’t forgotten you.”
Such people regularly gives Van der Ham her 06 number. “I’m Els from the RVO,” she says. “If you haven’t heard anything by Thursday, you can call me.” Hundreds of entrepreneurs have her number, but she is rarely called. “It gives people peace of mind to know: there is a person there, not a computer.”
More than ever, RVO employees come into contact with the fringes of society, says Van der Ham. For example, she spoke to an entrepreneur who bought phone chargers and other cheap items from Action to resell at gas stations. “That’s how he kept himself out of benefits. But suddenly the Action was closed and the gas stations were empty. He was devastated by the stress.”
Van der Ham can mean little to such people because they do not have their own business address – a requirement for the fixed-cost subsidy. Such bad news conversations are tough. “Then you hear: I am three months behind with my alimony. Can you really not help me?” At most, she can refer them to municipal corona schemes for which they may be eligible.
The work is emotionally demanding, says Verspagen. Yet she still gets energy from it. “Because we also make many entrepreneurs happy.” Van der Ham also notices this, who sometimes gets text messages from entrepreneurs who are very happy when they see the addition of the TVL subsidy. “We are the people who try to turn a no into a yes.”