Austria to extend short-time work scheme until end-March

VIENNA, July 29 (Reuters) - Austria will extend a work scheme it introduced in March to prevent lay-offs during the coronavirus until the end of March next year, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Wednesday.

The government will also provide 700 million euros ($822 million) to support retraining to help businesses find qualified staff for IT projects and counter shortages in the care sector.

Unemployment in the Alpine country has risen to its highest level since the data series began in 1946, above 12% to more than half a million people. That number stood at 432,000 last week.

To save jobs, the government introduced a so-called Kurzarbeit scheme in March, which provides at least 80% of pay for employees who work reduced hours but were expected to return to full-time work after three months.

It later allowed for a three-month extension. Around 475,000 of Austria’s 4.4 million labour force currently use the Kurzarbeit scheme.

Employees will have to work at least 30% of their normal working hours and not more than 80%, Kurz said. The current scheme allows to work between 10% and 90% of normal hours.

In addition, the new model is to include an obligation for employees to use their spare time to increase professional knowledge and skills.

Austria’s coronavirus outbreak has been relatively limited compared with other Western European countries. It has recorded 20,793 cases and 716 deaths. Infections have accelerated in recent weeks. ($1 = 0.8522 euros) (Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Nick Macfie)