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'Absenteeism': Union officials hit out at use of term to describe workers out for Covid reasons

“Covid-related shortages are not the result of ‘absenteeism’, which is defined as an avoidable absence from work.”

Image: Sam Boal

TRADE UNIONS REPRESENTING essential workers have hit out at the use of the term ‘absenteeism’ to describe members who are currently unable to attend work after either testing positive for Covid-19 or being named as a close contact of a confirmed case.

Thousands of workers in both the public and private sectors are out on Covid-related leave at the moment as the nation grapples with a surge in infections.

But Dr Laura Bambrick, head of social policy at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, told The Journal, “Covid-related shortages are not the result of ‘absenteeism’, which is defined as an avoidable absence from work.”

In recent days, employer’s group Ibec has called on the Government to reduce the Covid isolation periods for essential workers to avoid shortages and supply chain bottlenecks. 

Following a meeting between the three coalition leaders today, it is now expected that the Government will ask Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to relax the isolation rules for fully vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Meanwhile, Irish Rail has had to cancel a number of services over the coming week due to “Covid-19 and close contact absences”.

Last Friday, the UL Hospitals Group announced plans to defer the majority of its scheduled surgery and outpatient appointments at five hospitals in Limerick, Clare and Tipperary due to staff absences.

But the term ‘absenteeism’ is inappropriate to describe the phenomenon, trade union officials have said.

“Workers are following public health guidance, not gaming the system as some throwing the ‘absenteeism’ word around like confetti at a wedding would have the public believe,” Bambrick said.

She added, “Staffing shortages are the result of the surging numbers of Omicron infections and the knock-on effect of tens of thousands of workers self-isolating as close contacts.”

Jonathan Hogan, assistant general secretary of trade union Mandate — which represents 40,000 workers in the retail, pub and administrative sectors — said the current wave of infections is having an impact on staffing, particularly in the retail sector.

“Because the transmission is so high, it has impacted on the number of workers available in the supermarket business, drapery — right across the retail sector,” Hogan told The Journal.

“But I mean, using terms like ‘absenteeism’ in the traditional sense, it’s probably inappropriate. Our members are out through no fault of their own — and most of the time they don’t get paid for that.”

The Government’s plans to introduce statutory sick pay from this month have been delayed, the Irish Independent reported last month.

According to a letter sent by Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar’s department to Chartered Accountants Ireland, the new rules will now be enacted later this year.

Workers can apply for the Covid-related Enhanced Illness Benefit if they are out of work due to illness, or if they have been instructed to self-isolate or restrict their movements for a period.

But Hogan added, “Many retail workers don’t get paid when they’re out.

“They can’t afford to be out so what we’re asking employer’s to do is to ensure that [if a worker is out on Covid-related leave], it doesn’t trigger normal absenteeism mechanisms.”

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Hogan said this could lead to an investigation being launched into an employee who has been absent from work on different occasions.

“We’re asking all employers to deal with Covid-related absences in the most reasonable, fair way and to take everything into consideration,” he added.

‘Chaotic time’

Separately, a spokesperson for the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) — which has used the phrase ‘Covid-related leave’ throughout the pandemic’ — said, “The numbers of nurses and midwives on Covid-related leave is of huge concern to the INMO.

“Anecdotally, we are aware that it is incredibly difficult to fill rosters in many hospitals at the moment due to the numbers of staff who are on Covid-related leave.”

The union is calling on the Health Service Executive (HSE) to produce an “urgent capacity” plan and said the political system also has “a responsibility to an exhausted medical workforce to ensure their workplaces are as safe as they can be”. 

The spokesperson added, “There must be no tolerance for hospital overcrowding while a highly transmissible airborne virus is making its way around our hospitals. Improvements to air quality in our hospitals must be a priority.”

“As we head into what is traditionally a chaotic time in our hospitals, the normal January patterns of overcrowding in our hospitals should not be tolerated. Our hospitals cannot operate on the goodwill of staff alone, we need an urgent capacity plan from the HSE.”

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