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Explainer: What supports are in place for workers who get Covid-19 or have to self-isolate?

A Cabinet subcommittee will discuss proposals for worker supports on Monday.

CONCERNS HAVE BEEN raised in recent days over the rights of employees who are told to self-isolate as a precaution in response to the continuing Covid-19 crisis. 

Although the number of confirmed cases are still low in Ireland, a number of businesses and schools have closed as a precaution.

There is growing concern about the possible financial impact for workers and for companies if there is a significant increase in cases over the coming weeks and months. 

This week Google told staff to work from home after an employee reported flu-like symptoms, but the company said it wanted to test its operational readiness should employees have to work from home for an extended period.

A number of other companies have also asked staff to work from home as a precaution because of concerns about staff who have returned from abroad recently. 

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said anyone in self-isolation will receive statutory sick pay from their first day off work. This will be included in emergency coronavirus legislation.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week that workers “should receive income support” if they have to self-isolate in accordance with medical advice. 

He said this will require “flexibility and responsiveness” by employers and in government social protection schemes.

He said the Cabinet subcommittee on Covid-19 will consider proposals on Monday. 

Guidance on arrangements for self-isolation has already been issued to all civil and public service employees. 

Who will get paid?

Richard Grogan, employment law specialist, told that all employees who have sick leave in their contracts will get paid if they become sick with Covid-19. 

Most contracts will have a sub-provision detailing how long you will be paid for. 

Social welfare will kick in after six days, so you have to be sick for six days before social welfare will kick in. If your contract is silent on sick pay, then you’ve no entitlement to sick pay, that’s the unfortunate fact of life. / YouTube

Grogan said there has been no specific advice issued to employers and it is not clear whether there will be government support for firms if they are hit by an outbreak.

“There really needs to be something there to assist employers being good employers, and there’s got to be financial stress on many companies, and those companies now will need assistance to be able to pay people who are out sick, and that really is going to have to be looked at very carefully.”

When it comes to self-isolation, while many office-based employees may be able to work from home during a self-isolation period, others, such as bus drivers or retail workers, for example, would not have that option. 

It is unlikely that an employer would refuse to pay someone who has been advised by the HSE to self-isolate, as this person may decide to keep coming to work rather than lose out on wages. And this could put other employees at risk.

Said Grogan:

Employers in that situation really would be looking at the other workers because if they insist upon the worker coming into work in that situation, and other workers get ill, could they be held liable for the fact of bringing Covid-19 into their workplace when they knew there was a risk? There is a health and safety issue there for employers that they have to balance.

However, legally, an employer could currently refuse to pay a worker who is in this situation. 

“If the HSE tells somebody to self-isolate, that is treated as the employee themselves saying ‘I’m not going to work’,” explained Grogan. / YouTube

An employer can ask a (permanent) employee to stay at home, even if the HSE says it’s fine for them to continue going to work, but in this situation the employer must pay.

But you are not legally entitled to work from home – this is a decision that has to be made by your employer. 

Welfare supports

The Department of Social Protection has issued advice for workers who are diagnosed with the virus, as well as those who need to self-isolate as a precautionary measure.

  • Where a person has been diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus, normal workplace arrangements in respect of sick-absence should apply. They can apply for income support from the department in the form of illness benefit if they are not entitled to paid sick leave.
  • For those who are not diagnosed but who are self-isolating in line with the HSE guidelines, there is also the option of applying for income support from the department if their employer ceases to pay their wages. Legally, an employer does not have to pay a worker if they self-isolate on foot of HSE advice, the employer can view this as the worker’s decision to stay off work.

Anyone who is not advised to self-isolate in accordance with the HSE guidelines, but who has been asked by their employer to stay home as a precaution, can apply for income support (jobseeker payment or supplementary welfare allowance) if their employer cannot continue to pay wages.

However in cases where self-isolation is done at the request of the employer, the employer should continue paying workers as normal. 

The department pointed out that an employee is also entitled to paid leave known as ‘force majeure leave’ and suggested this could be availed of by parents if their child has to stay at home because of the virus. 

However Grogan says the department’s position on force majeure in this situation is “questionable”. 

That only applies where the immediate attendance of a parent with a child is necessary. Now that is taken to be a very restrictive test and if a child has to stay at home because of Covid-19, I don’t see that that comes within force majeure leave because their immediate attention is not needed. That was intended to cover a situation of an accident or a very serious illness, so a protective issue will not apply. / YouTube

The government has said people should not be de-incentivised to disclose symptoms or inform their employer of exposure to Covid-19. 

This may be difficult to manage in circumstances where an employer cannot afford to/will not pay employees who are self-isolating and where welfare payments do not cover the full wage amount. It can also take some time from the application to the receipt of payment of benefits. 

Employer association Ibec has called for a special emergency social welfare payment at the level of jobseekers benefit for a two-week period which waives the normal qualifying period. 

Precarious work/self-employment

There is currently no policy in place to provide financial support for self-employed workers (who would likely not be entitled to welfare payments) and the government has not specifically spoken about these workers. 

A taxi driver who drove the woman from Northern Ireland who was the first diagnosed case on the island of Ireland, told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke that he had to self-isolate, even after he tested negative.

During this time, he said he would not be able to work – he was not offered financial support from the State.

Yesterday general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Patricia King wrote to the Taoiseach to express concern about the implications of Covid-29 for workers. 

She pointed out that Workplace Relations Commission guidance issued this week stated that employees who do not have a contract of employment or an agreed attendance policy have no statutory entitlement to be paid for absences, even possibly those arising from HSE advice.

She said hundreds of thousands of workers, including those in low-paying sectors or precarious employment and who are highly dependent on income from work, will not be entitled to payment in these circumstances.

“Put bluntly, some workers, through no fault of their own, may simply be unable to self-isolate.”

She said in order to ensure containment of the virus, is it important to uphold the net income of all affected workers, either through the social welfare system or through temporary payments.  

In a statement, the government said it acknowledges that there are a wide range of scenarios where businesses and employees will potentially be affected by the impacts of Covid-19.

The Taoiseach has asked government officials to meet with employers and trade union representatives to discuss how assistance can best be provided.

- Videos and additional reporting by Nicky Ryan 

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