Coronavirus: Few employers found to have abused wage subsidy scheme

More than 4000 complaints have been lodged against employers, accusing them of improperly using the wage subsidy scheme.

But most of the complaints have been resolved without any prosecutions being made. 

To date $14 billion has been paid out as part of the scheme since March 20, paid to employers if they could prove a 30 percent decline in projected or actual revenue, took steps to mitigate the impact and promised to "make best efforts" to keep staff on. 

Introduced as the coronavirus began to spread in New Zealand just ahead of the country's lockdown, the subsidy operated on a high-trust model - allowing funds to be deposited almost immediately, without forcing employers to go through lengthy application processes. The Government says it protected 1.7 million jobs, and Ministry of Social Development (MSD) data shows as of October 2 it was still supporting 94,578. 

Out of the $14 billion paid out, $469 million has been given back by employers. Of that, 15,562 employers subsequently realised they didn't need it or didn't qualify and paid it back voluntarily.

But not all employers have been so willing. MSD says it's received 4140 complaints about employers improperly using the wage subsidy. Spokesperson George Van Ooyen told Newshub of those, 3218 have been resolved - resulting in 520 employers being told to pay the money back.

"The Government previously made it clear that the wage subsidy scheme has been set up on a high-trust model in order to deliver funds to support workers, families, and businesses. It's pleasing that our auditing to date has found that, in the vast majority of cases, employers are doing the right thing," he said.

So far there had been no prosecutions.

"In the small number of cases where payments should not have been claimed, what action we take will depend on the circumstances," said Van Ooyen.

"Applicants may be asked to repay the subsidy, or in the most serious cases, where there is evidence of deliberate fraud, we will consider criminal prosecutions.

"There have been no prosecutions to date and any decisions on prosecutions will come after a thorough investigation and weighing of the evidentiary basis for a prosecution. That process of investigation and consideration is underway, and this involves working with police on relevant cases."

When the subsidy was announced National finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith expressed concern it would be abused by employers, but said "you can't be overly critical of officials who are trying to respond rapidly to the situation".

BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope says the fact fewer than 1 percent of all recipients of the wage subsidy have had complaints laid, and only a fraction of those found to be breaking the rules, shows the high-trust model has worked. 

"I think the fact that those statistics are very low show that the Government made the right decision... Employers really did do the right thing."