GEPF ombudsman a welcome relief for frustrated claimants
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THE devastating impact of Covid-19 has left many people not only dealing with the loss of a loved one, but also the frustration of paperwork to access death and spousal pension benefits to keep their households afloat. This can often be a cumbersome process beset with delays at a time when these benefits are needed the most.
To assist claimants of public servants who have passed away and are struggling to access their benefits, the Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) has introduced the Government Employees Pension Ombudsman (GEPO).
The ombudsman came into effect from July 1 to act as a referee between the GEPF and claimants who are experiencing unnecessary delays or have complaints against the fund. The GEPO is a welcome relief for many facing challenges in accessing their benefit payments.
Furthermore, its establishment comes at a time when our country is dealing with the fall-out from the coronavirus, and there has been a marked increase in the number of claims to the GEPF.
South Africa has had more than 2.8 million Covid-19 positive cases since the start of the pandemic. Government employees such as frontline workers, healthcare workers, police and military personnel are a considerable part of those exposed to the virus in carrying out their duties.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt across the board, with the loss of more than 60 000 people, some of them members of the GEPF. The result of the deaths is that families find themselves financially distressed when a breadwinner passes away. Families therefore have to access the benefits of the GEPF quickly to support their households.
The GEPF is the largest pension fund in Africa, with more than 1.2 million active members and assets worth R1.6 trillion. Every permanent employee of the government contributes to the GEPF monthly, and benefits are claimable only on resignation, retirement or the death of a member.
A cardinal rule at the fund is for benefits such as death benefits and spousal/child pensions to be paid within 60 days from the date a claim is lodged. Ordinarily, this would take two months from the date on which the human resources department where the deceased worked completes the relevant forms and hands them to the GEPF for processing.
However, many people experience waiting times far exceeding 60 days for numerous reasons, including slow processing from the human resources department, delays in processing documents at the GEPF, late claims by other dependants/beneficiaries, and, most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic resulting in an increased number of claims.
Covid-19 has resulted in an increased backlog of work for most government departments, and the GEPF is no exception. It is often the unfortunate case that on the other side of the delay is a family with no income, having lost its breadwinner.
One such recent case is that of Maria*, who lost her husband, a school teacher in Gauteng, in November last year because of Covid-19 complications. Now a widow with four minor children to care for, she struggled to access her late husband’s benefits.
Despite numerous follow-ups, Maria had waited more than seven months for the payment of her husband’s death and pension benefits.
Maria claimed for her husband’s pension through the Department of Basic Education and only received the funeral benefit of R15 000 in February this year.
Her husband had been employed with the department for more than 30 years and had accumulated a pension benefit of more than R2 million. Maria was also entitled to half of her husband’s monthly salary from the date of his death.
While the family were financially secure on paper, their bank accounts were empty because of the unreasonable delay in processing the benefits.
Maria lost hope in following up with the GEPF, and the creditors of her late husband threatened legal action to repossess their vehicles and house and to sell their assets to recover the money owed to them.
Maria regularly went to the GEPF offices to enquire about the benefit payment, but was constantly informed that the file was in the payments section.
She eventually appointed an attorney specialising in pension funds who immediately launched an urgent application to court to compel the GEPF to process the payment and pay Maria within 14 days. Although she received the benefit payment, she incurred unnecessary legal costs
As an attorney working on pension fund matters, I deal with many cases similar to that of Maria. The GEPO will go a long way to support people such as Maria.
What does the GEPO do?
The GEPO is a voluntary organisation established by the board of trustees of the GEPF to handle complaints against the GEPF. It includes complaints such as outstanding payments and the actions of the GEPF trustees, and complaints about employers who do not fulfil their legal duties, such as filling out claim forms timeously or sending them to the GEPF timeously.
Claimants with outstanding matters can write a letter to the GEPF alerting them of the complaint and affording the fund 30 days to resolve it. If the GEPF fails to resolve the matter within this time, it can be referred to the GEPO.
In urgent cases where claimants are unable to wait the extra 30 days, they have the option of raising the urgency with the ombudsman or going through the court process.
* Maria is not her real name, for confidentiality purposes.
** Chris Ditabe is an attorney practising as a director at Ditabe and Wagner Attorneys in Pretoria.
*** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.