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Austria trebles job-protection scheme’s funding as applications jump

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is trebling the funding available for a scheme designed to prevent layoffs that enables employers to keep staff on their books while only paying for hours actually worked, the Finance Ministry said on Monday.

Despite the government repeatedly encouraging employers to use the scheme – even calling it the most generous of its kind in the world – unemployment shot up last month to the highest level since the data began in 1946 as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out jobs across the economy.

But the coalition government of conservatives and Greens said that without the measure, that spike would have been twice as large as hundreds of thousands of jobs have been registered for it.

“The rush of applications for reduced working hours at the (employment agency) AMS has increased enormously in recent days,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement, adding that the scheme’s funding limit was being increased to 3 billion euros ($3.25 billion) from 1 billion euros.

So far 400,000 jobs have been “secured” through the programme, labour minister Christine Aschbacher said in the statement. That compares with last month’s increase of 199,934 in the number of registered unemployed.

Aschbacher has said she will encourage firms to use the scheme, even retroactively, for jobs that have already been cut, though it is not clear whether any companies have done that.

The government has pledged to make 38 billion euros in economic aid available to keep the economy ticking over and preserve jobs in the face of the pandemic.

The country has effectively been on lockdown for three weeks, slowing the disease’s spread, but the number of cases continues to rise. Austria has so far had 12,008 confirmed coronavirus cases and 204 deaths from COVID-19, the illness the virus leads to.

While the country’s health system has not yet been overwhelmed, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has said its intensive-care capacity could be exceeded as soon as mid-April. Despite that, he is due to outline later on Monday when and how lockdown measures might be loosened.

($1 = 0.9244 euros)

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Hugh Lawson)