ATS 500 Schilling note - in circulation when I arrived in Austria.

Urlaubsgeld and Weihnachtsgeld – collective security?

If you see a Beamte with a spring in his step at the moment there are two logical explanations: firstly, it is May and the plethora of Feiertage and Fenstertage mean that three or four day weeks are the norm this month. I remember vividly when I first entered gainful employment in Vienna over 25 years ago that May flew past very quickly and then June was spent meeting targets before the “slow summer period”. For those working in the gig economy, eg. English teachers, where Thursdays and Mondays are by their own estimation, their busiest days the disruption is an unwelcome one for bank balances. Meanwhile the Beamte beams at the sight of a bank balance swelled by Urlaubsgeld hitting the account.

For those who live from paycheque to paycheque (I use this term metaphorically, since the Scheck has long been banished to history in Austria and salaries are transferred rather than handed out in cash) Urlaubsgeld signals a welcome return to the again metaphorical black. As I got the tram into town yesterday, I overheard a lady on the phone calling her better half and announcing with relief that “Urlaubsgeld ist jetzt am Konto” before discussing whether to pay for the door or the windows. In this case it sounded like a timely cash injection for a renovation project, and the prospect of a staycation rather than escaping to tropical climes.

As a caveat for those of you still reading and currently opening another window or another App, not everyone receives 14 salaries and the “13th and 14th month salaries” as they are sometimes known may also be paid in as an extra half salary every quarter. I had a convoluted explanation from a colleague with a Swiss franc mortgage who explained how his 13th and 14th salaries tied in nicely to pay off his mortgage every quarter. Bully for him.

Family and friends over in the UK would doubtless question the wisdom and provenance of the 13th and 14th salary. My tendency to squirrel money away and live within my means meant that the 13th and 14th salary was always just a rather nice surprise that was skimmed off out of my account and put into the savings account and barely touched. This approach meant that I put aside 15% of my salary without realising it. In Austria and Britain there is a growing number of people who have savings of less than one month’s salary.

Surely the main thing is the total going in and going out regardless of whether divided by 12 or 14. The reason I say this, is that this day and age, surely holidays are not only booked in May/June – a friend running camps for children complains if they are not fully booked by March/April. Granted she is further up the food chain than many. As someone tied to school holidays, we’ve downsized holiday plans on occasions due to baulking at the price of hotels, flights etc. when we failed to book early. A colleague of my wife’s party piece (or stock conversation) is usually on hand at any staff gathering to regale me about how much money he saved by booking when he did. Commendation for Herr M., just don’t spam us with the photos.

Nephew continues to scrape by and his monthly confessional is becoming less harrowing than it was six months ago as he is not haemorrhaging money like he was. Gone from our monthly pow-wows are the usual nervous exchanges of “Errrr… I’ve got another bill that I need to pay and completely forgot about…” and he has been very resourceful in selling rather than buying items on Willhaben and other similar websites and has managed to work quite intensively giving Nachhilfe to students sweating their way to the Matura. The prospects of him soon drawing 14 salaries seem remote, as he’s currently plotting his return towards higher education – this time through a Fachhochschule.

But returning to 13th and 14th salaries, where do they come from? And who gets them? The simple answer is that it is all tied into the Kollektivvertrag (collective wage agreement) which governs the wages for entire professional groups and sectors. Since so many employees are tied into this kind of bargaining, the negotiations each year, which are a barometer of economic performance of sectors and a litmus test for the Hartnäckigkeit of the union negotiators, are still followed with interest.

Salary structures within the Kollektivvertrag are still built up towards a holy grail of a high final salary to ensure a comfortable life in retirement, albeit to the detriment of those just starting to climb the salary ladder. The system is admirable if it weren’t for the fact that pensioners are now outliving the statistical longevity calculated way back when, when they themselves were on the first rung of the ladder, requiring more healthcare the older they get. Is it all about the Sterbetafel being out of sync with the actual mortality trends (no dying is not trendy, but is nonetheless inevitable!), with actuaries trying to work out new models for an increasingly ageing population amid a continuing low interest-rate environment.

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