‘Stopgap’ or life saver?: Italy’s scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis

Italy's freelancers and self-employed were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with their livelihoods threatened by the sudden loss of income. The Italian government put in a place a scheme to help them survive, but how well did it achieve its aim?

'Stopgap' or life saver?: Italy's scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis
Youth gather for an aperitif drink outside a bar in the Trastevere district of Rome. AFP

In her second year of working as an English teacher in Milan, Jenna Leary from West Yorkshire, UK, suddenly found herself among the millions in Italy who lost their incomes almost overnight when the coronavirus lockdown on March 10th.

“As a freelancer, I had almost nothing to fall back on,” she says. “All I could think was ‘how am I going to pay my rent?’”

“Suddenly I needed to find out how the social security system works here, which is not something I had ever thought about before, and is beyond my level of Italian.”

The teacher had no choice but to apply for the 600-euro emergency payment, known as the indennità or “bonus 600”, created by the government to help the self-employed through the shutdown.

It was announced a week after the nationwide lockdown measures were enforced.

The “bonus 600” policy was introduced as part of a 25-billion-euro aid package in the so-called “Cura Italia” (“Italy Cure”) decree, signed on March 17th, which Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said was “for the benefit of the Italian economic system.”

The payment was made available to freelance contractors, self-employed workers, seasonal workers in tourism, agricultural workers, and entertainment workers, who’d need to have an Italian partita IVA (VAT number) and to be able to demonstrate that they had lost at least two-thirds of their income.

‘100 requests per second’

The scheme opened for applications on April 1st. Almost two months later, some of those who applied within the first few weeks say they’re still waiting for their money.

Things didn’t get off to a promising start. On the day applications opened, the INPS website crashed and malfunctioned as INPS said “up to 100 requests per second” were being submitted, something the agency’s director said had “never been seen before”.

Despite these initial problems, millions were able to submit their applications. Data from INPS showed that 4.74 million applications were received in the first month – between April 1st and April 27th. Of those, 3.45 million had been approved.

INPS stated at the end of April that it had processed most of these first applications and had sent out payments by April 17th.

However, there have been widespread reports of delays and issues with the application process.

INPS data shows some 630,000 of those applications were still waiting to be processed at the time of writing.

Photo: AFP

Around 300,000 had been rejected because the claimant was already receiving a pension, or the reddito di cittadinanza, a type of unemployment benefit.

And another 225,000 had been rejected for entering details, such as their IBAN number, incorrectly. Those applications could be amended and resubmitted, the INPS said.

‘Huge time pressures’

“Clearly the scheme had to be set up under huge time pressures, but it has a number of defects,” commented Judith Ruddock, a partner at Italian-British accountancy firm Studio del Gaizo Picchioni.

“The main problem we have encountered is that the application procedure is not connected to INPS records,” she explained. “This means that for each client we need to input their address details even though INPS already has these, and any slight deviation from the address held by INPS results in the issue of a message requiring the client to wait to be contacted to clarify the discrepancy.”

“As you can imagine, with so many claimants the waiting time to be contacted is very long.”

The firm advises clients to call the INPS’ numero verde (freephone number), but say clients report various problems in doing so, with one having to call the number 72 times before getting a response, and others saying the advertised English-language support wasn’t available.

Teacher Jenna Leary was among them. A few weeks after she’d made her claim, she explained, INPS contacted her about “irregularities” with her address.

“They demanded a certificate of proof of residence, which is impossible to get at this time with offices closed,” she said.

“I called their hotline repeatedly, as it claimed support was available in English. It took me days to get through, and of course no one spoke English and the staff were rude and impatient,” she said.

“I managed to confirm my details, the staff said the claim was being processed, and hung up without giving me a reference number or anything.”

Over a month later, she says she still hasn’t heard back or received any payments and is currently relying on financial support from her family.

Some claimants also said the application process itself was unclear.

James Tucker, a teacher in Italy’s public school system, says he’s still waiting for his claim to be processed.

“I signed up on the INPS website, I followed the instructions and after a day I was sent half of the 16-digit pin via SMS, the remaining eight digits were to be sent via post.”

“Still at this moment I have received nothing. I’ve called multiple times, after being on hold for 30 minutes plus, only to then speak with someone, who in turn transfers me to someone else, only for that person to hang up the phone.”

“I believe that I’ll never have the chance to claim the emergency funds, even though I’m a school teacher and sports teacher and fully entitled to the payment,” he said, adding that he now has “zero income”.

‘I received the money within one week’

Though it is apparently not made clear during the application process, INPS have in fact waived the requirement for the second, postal part of the pin, Rudduck confirmed – though “this has also caused a little confusion when the second parts arrive by mail and clients don’t understand what to do with them.”

One applicant who received the 600-euro payment successfully is George Young, a freelance translator from the UK living in Trento, northern Italy.

“I received the payment within about a week of the application going on. It all seemed very smooth,” he said, explaining that the application was made via his accountant.

“Although, that said, I didn’t apply until 2-3 weeks after it was initially launched so the INPS system was not as overloaded by that time.”

At the same time, George says his wife applied for Italy’s unemployment benefit (NASpI) which he says was “really quick”, with the first payment arriving within three weeks.

“The process has really impressed me, as has the amount received. Obviously my expectations have been managed by the equivalent benefit in the UK which seems to take longer and pay much, much less,” he said.

Italy is not the only European country to have brought in this type of emergency payment system for the self-employed following the coronavirus shutdown.

Germany, for example, announced its own Emergency Aid Programme (das Soforthilfe-Programm) which includes a €50 billion hardship fund to give grants to small businesses, the self-employed and freelancers.

As Germany is a federal country, individual states have also set up their own schemes, sometimes with differing criteria and conditions.

In Berlin, up until the end of May, applicants who have up to five employees including freelancers can get up to €9,000, while small businesses with up to 10 employees are allowed up to €15,000.

The process of applying for the German scheme has been quite straightforward, with payments made in as little as 48 hours in some cases. The scheme has had both praise and criticism over the size of the payments and the speed with which they’re being issued.

Residents go about their activities on May 20, 2020 in Codogno, southeast of Milan, one of the villages at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic in February. AFP

‘A stopgap at best’

In Italy, the most obvious problem with the “bonus 600” is the size of the payments, which is often not sufficient to cover a monthly rent payment: the average rent in the country is around 600 euros a month.

However, rent prices are far higher in most cities, and can rise to double that amount in Italy’s economic capital, Milan – which is often where foreigners are able to find work in the country.

The policy is “a stopgap at best,” said Federico Santi, a senior Europe analyst at Eurasia Group.  

The 600-euro payments might be “barely enough” to cover basic necessities – food, bills, rent – “in lower-income regions or areas, at least for households with multiple incomes,” he said.

The flat payment doesn’t take into account the large differences in the cost of living between regions, and is not based on the recipient’s past income. 

“The government opted for a flat payment in order to expedite the process and cap the overall bill – and, more cynically, knowing income statements for the self-employed are often not representative,” Santi explained.

For Italy’s self-employed foreign residents, there’s another issue: the lack of support available in languages other than Italian, which leaves them at a disadvantage when trying to access these vital emergency funds.

‘Improvements could be made’

The system could be improved, Ruddock said, “firstly by allowing professionals to liaise with INPS directly in relation to client applications. This would have meant that we could have managed the process without needing to ask our clients to intervene to resolve discrepancies. Many of our clients are not confident in speaking Italian, particularly on the phone and particularly with an institute like INPS.”

“The second major improvement would be if the system was automatically connected to INPS records, so that by inserting the codice fiscale of the client, the address details would appear automatically. This would have saved a huge amount of time and expense in sorting out “discrepancies” which generally were only an alternative method of writing the same address.”

After weeks of uncertainty, the Italian government confirmed on May 16th that the “bonus 600” monthly payment would be extended to cover April and May, although it’s not known if it could continue beyond that

“It’s not sustainable for more than a few months,” Santi from Eurasia group said, “as goes for many of the economic support measures adopted by the government, however generous.”

“A majority of businesses have re-opened this month, but many have not – so there is pressure to extend the payments to June and possibly July,” he explained, adding that other benefits have been extended for longer.

“Beyond that would be a challenge. Of course, this partly depends on the epidemiological picture,” he said.

The government also announced that a higher payment of up to 1000 euros would also be made available to cover losses in May, though the conditions for application for the higher sum have not yet been published.

A spokesperson for INPS declined to answer any questions regarding the “bonus 600” payments.

Confronting Coronavirus: This article is part of a new series of articles in which The Local’s journalists across Europe are taking an in-depth look at the responses to different parts of the crisis in different countries; what’s worked, what hasn’t, and why.
This article has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
The SJN has given The Local a grant to explore how different countries are confronting the various affects of the coronavirus crisis and the successes and failures of each approach.
Creative Commons Licence
‘Stopgap’ or life saver?: Italy’s scheme to help the self-employed survive the coronavirus crisis by Clare Speak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

Member comments

  1. Interesting article, I have an Italian accountant for my ‘tasse’ and I work in electronic engineering and teach English, my income fell off a cliff under lock down losing over 1,500€ a month. My accountant handled everything regarding these payments and I have experienced no problems at all..

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


How to find a job in Sweden: Five tips from those who’ve been there, done that

The Swedish job market poses unique challenges for newcomers. The Local's readers share their best tips for cracking the career code.

How to find a job in Sweden: Five tips from those who've been there, done that

Network, network, network!

A statistic that often gets tossed around is that seven out of ten jobs in Sweden are obtained through personal connections, and there’s no doubt that a good network is crucial to your job hunt, making the labour market extra challenging for newcomers to the country.

In fact, networking was the main tip mentioned by The Local’s readers.

“The job market is quite hot in Sweden, and talent is in short supply. People hiring do not have a lot of time to find the right talent, and tips from friends, colleagues and former colleagues are the way to first, find out organisations are hiring, and secondly, get your CV on the short list,” said Kyle, a Canadian reader who works in innovation management in Gothenburg.

“If you are going for a major employer like Volvo, network gets you in the door, as HR does not have much to do with hiring… the hiring managers do all of it and have no time, due to the insane number of consensus meetings. If you are looking for smaller organisations, they have even less time to find people, and networking is their primary way to find talent,” he added.


Some of the networking tips readers mentioned were going to job fairs, getting an internship to help you establish connections in your preferred field, joining clubs (this could be anything from your local gardening association to meetups for coders, but focus on clubs that may be popular among people working in your chosen field), and drawing on your organic network of friends, neighbours and others.

Don’t neglect the groundwork

The saying “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” is getting worn out (and people may look at you funny if you turn up to interviews in a Batman suit), but there’s truth to the notion of making sure you know what you want – and preparing for it.

In other words, don’t wait for a job ad to appear before you start to customise your CV and figure out what skill set you need. Create your CV now so that you’re ready to tweak it to your dream job – you could even have a general look at job ads in your field to see what requirements are needed. And don’t forget to spruce up your LinkedIn profile so that it fits with your career goals.

“I believe that several factors contribute to successfully landing a desirable job in Sweden. It’s essential to prepare to meet the requirements beyond just having a university degree. Many individuals realise these requirements only after completing their studies when they start searching for a job, which can be too late,” said Adnan Aslam from Pakistan, who works as a food inspector.

“I recommend identifying the job advertisements for positions you aspire to hold in the future and then preparing for those requirements during your studies. For me, acquiring a basic level of proficiency in the Swedish language and obtaining a Swedish driving licence were crucial. I pursued these goals during my studies and was able to secure a desirable job before graduating,” he added.


Felipe Cabral even has a GPT assistant trained on his own CVs and old cover letters, and said the set-up only takes ten minutes if you already have your documents. “With that in place, you can give instructions like: Read this job description and create a tailored version of my CV and letter for it. (…) Remember to always review and ask it not to create data aside from your documents.”

Be flexible and ready to adapt

Moving to a new place inevitably means having to learn not just the practicalities such as how to write a CV or which websites to use to look for job openings, but also learning how to navigate a new culture with all its unspoken expectations.

Swedish workplaces are generally less hierarchical than many other countries, but that doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want without anyone raising an eyebrow. Swedes are usually direct, but be careful of being too abrasive or boastful: raising your voice, even during a spirited argument, or banging your own drum to show off your skills may not go down well.

“Talk, deliberate, complain like a Swede and you’ll come across like you know what the job entails, so your trustworthiness increases,” said an Indian data analyst who preferred to remain anonymous.

“Office politics are just as strong in Sweden as anywhere else. The flat hierarchy is deceiving as social hierarchy is enforced quite a bit in that lack of formal hierarchy. Take your time in learning these dynamics wherever you work before revealing your talent and capabilities. Expect those internal politics to happen, and they won’t hurt so much when they do,” said Kyle, the Canadian reader in Gothenburg.

This article about Swedish office politics may be useful.

Stay true to yourself

Adapting to your surroundings is one thing. Completely changing who you are is another.

For one thing, your happiness is as important as your career progression, and for another, your foreignness need not be an impediment: it’s also a skill that sets you apart from the rest. It means you have unique experience, and also, in the right setting, provides an opportunity to sometimes violate those social rules we mentioned above, because people assume you will, anyway.

“Trust is key. Build trust in your network, work with integrity. It’s OK to violate jantelagen if you are maintaining integrity. Sometimes your outsider and more honest/open opinion will burn bridges, especially those that may feel threatened by talent. But it will build trust with other colleagues who see it as brave and more trustworthy to work with,” said Kyle from Canada.

Hunker down for the long haul

We don’t want to scare you, because there are plenty of examples of people who quickly find their dream job in Sweden and settle into their new workplace, enjoying perks such as long summer holidays, generous parental leave and the famous work-life balance.

But if you do find it tougher than you expected: know that you’re not alone.

Several readers who responded to the survey said they were still trying to find a job in Sweden.

“I found jobs all over Europe but not here. They say they have a lack of experienced senior engineers but the don’t seem to be doing much to solve this,” said a Brazilian in Gothenburg.

A reader from Bangladesh said she was “at a loss” as to how to make a career change from her current AI role in Stockholm, despite many years of experience as an IT project manager.

“Over the past 18 months, I’ve submitted over 600 applications to various organisations. Unfortunately, despite being overqualified for some positions, I’ve faced rejections at every turn, from both large and small companies. The job market here, especially for foreign-born women, feels overwhelmingly challenging,” she said, adding that the struggle had impacted her mental health.

The Local has on several occasions reported on foreign residents’ struggle to get a foot on the Swedish job ladder, with many facing hurdles such as employers’ unfamiliarity with international degrees, discrimination, or a lack of network that can provide paths into a company.

So during the job hunt, don’t forget to care for yourself. Share your concerns with fellow job-seekers, ask for help and join networking groups – this is good not just for creating new contacts, but also in terms of your social well-being and meeting people who are in a similar situation.

And finally, as one British reader in Stockholm advised, keep looking: “Be open-minded with the opportunities that present themselves. It isn’t an easy market to enter and doesn’t feel inclusive.” But he added, “don’t give up”.