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Maternity leave exclusion from wage subsidy referred to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

In order to be eligible for the scheme, employees need a pay slip from January or February this year.

Image: Shutterstock/NazarBazar

THE ISSUE OF women who are returning from maternity leave in March not being eligible for the government’s Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme has been referred to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

The Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme was introduced to try to prevent employees from losing their jobs due to the economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, in order to be eligible for the scheme, employees need a pay slip from January or February this year.

This would mean that women who are returning from paid maternity leave would be earning less than their normal pay package, and women who are on unpaid maternity leave wouldn’t be eligible for the scheme at all.

This anomaly would also affect people who are on illness benefit or off-pay leave, and has been criticised as having the “potential to be discriminatory”.

In cases like this, Revenue has advised employers to either “operate the scheme based on Average Revenue Net Weekly Pay for January/February 2020″, which women who are returning from unpaid maternity leave cannot, or else “pay the employee the appropriate wages without receiving a subsidy refund”.

Trade unions Siptu and Ictu, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI), and a number of TDs have raised this issue with the government.

The NWCI said that it has written to the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe about the issue, but according to the NWCI, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe replied to say that his approach to the matter will not be changing.

As a result, the NWCI has now referred the issue on to Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in relation to the exclusion of women returning from maternity leave from the scheme.

“Women on maternity leave have a heightened level of protection and therefore cannot be placed in the same category as employees, for example, who commenced a new employment after that date, or returned to the payroll of his or her employer after that date following a period of unpaid leave,” wrote Orla O’Connor of the NWCI.

However, this is the argument that the Minister has put forth.

“We believe that this approach is not in compliance with the Maternity Protection Act 1994 which provides that women on maternity leave are entitled to be treated as if they had been at work during their maternity leave.”

She added that the organisation believed the exclusion wasn’t in line with the requirements of the Public Sector Equality and Human Rights Duty.

“We do not believe that the Department of Finance was acting in accordance with their obligations under this duty when they formed this policy.”

The NWCI asked the IHREC to consider the matter.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the IHREC said:

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is aware of this issue related to maternity leave through public contacts with our own “Your Rights” service, as well as through the NWCI’s letter.
It is a matter of concern, and the Commission will be examining this issue in detail.

It’s estimated that around 20,000 women claim maternity leave benefits each year, and around half of this cohort do not receive top ups from their employer.

Although the issue only affects women who have been on maternity leave in January and February, and returned to work in March, April or May, as time goes on and more women return to work, the number of women it affects will increase.

On Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme would be extended beyond June, and that it would continue for longer than the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.

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