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ICTU calls on Government to protect income of workers hit by coronavirus

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ensure that workers affected by Covid-19 do not suffer any loss of income that might deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of coronavirus.

It comes as employers body Ibec refused to give an assurance that employers would provide sick pay to workers affected by the virus on an across-the-board basis.

In a letter to Mr Varadkar, Congress General Secretary Patricia King says that because there is no statutory entitlement to be paid by an employer for absences from work, even where following Health Service Executive advice, hundreds of thousands of low paid workers may not unable to afford to self-isolate.

She states that considering the imperative that virus containment efforts succeed “…it is of the utmost importance therefore to uphold the net incomes of all affected workers, either through the social welfare system or through temporary payments”.

Ms King notes that under health and safety legislation, workers are obliged to ensure that they do not pose a threat in their workplace, a position which Congress endorses.

She states that some workers in areas where social dialogue, including collective bargaining, is respected will be entitled to full pay as per existing agreements.

However, Ms King goes on to say: “This is not the case however for hundreds of thousands of other workers, including those who may not be entitled to sick pay, those in low paying sectors or precarious employment situations, who are highly dependent on income from work.”

She tells the Taoiseach: “Put bluntly, some workers, through no fault of their own, may simply be unable to self-isolate”

Ms King notes today’s decision of the UK government to amend statutory sick pay arrangements to make it available from the first day of illness, rather than the fourth day as at present.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said people who self-isolated were helping to protect others from the virus and should not be “penalised for doing the right thing”.

The welfare change means recipients will be entitled to an extra £40.

In the letter to Mr Varadkar, Ms King also cites this week’s OECD recommendation to “…cushion the economic effects of the outbreak on vulnerable social groups by providing temporary assistance such as cash transfers”.

In addition, she also refers to yesterday’s and says unions remain available for further engagement.

Ibec refuses to give assurances over sick pay for Covid-19

Earlier, Ibec refused to give an assurance that employers would provide sick pay to workers affected by the Covid-19 virus on an across-the-board basis.

Yesterday, ICTU’s Patricia King wrote to Ibec Chief Executive Danny McCoy calling on employers to continue to pay workers who fall ill or self-isolate due to the virus.

In his response today, Mr McCoy acknowledges that when an employee contracts the virus, Ibec agrees that the normal conditions for sick leave would apply.

However, he said it was not possible to give a “uniform” response to the issue of self-isolation, or in regard to decisions made by individuals with caring responsibilities.

He stated: “This is a matter where employers will have to consider the unique circumstances of each case and respond in line with their own policies”. 

He added that the impact of Covid-19 should be minimised to the greatest extent possible by options including remote or flexible working, parental and carers’ leave as well as other forms of leave

Mr McCoy said the first consideration for employers will be the health and safety of the workforce, along with local communities and general public health.

He stressed that it was of “paramount” importance for employers to maintain good communications and open dialogue with staff about how the organisation would address various issues. 

In yesterday’s letter, the Congress General Secretary called on the Workplace Relations Commission to work with stakeholders to develop a Statutory Code of Practice on dealing with Covid-19.

However, in today’s response Mr McCoy said: “… while we remain open to engagement on this issue as it continues to unfold, I feel the very unpredictability of an event such as Coronavirus makes it highly unlikely that a static Code of Practice could be sufficiently responsive and flexible to adequately protect both employers and employees in an evolving situation”.

FSU wants special treatment of coronavirus-related cases

The Financial Services Union has called for unplanned absences due to the Covid-19 virus to be treated as special leave with pay.

General Secretary John O’Connell said banks have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all staff, and that workers do not suffer any loss of pay.

The FSU, which represents around 13,000 workers in banks and other financial institutions, said that any staff missing work due to care commitments should be paid as normal, or alternatively, homeworking arrangements should be put in place where feasible.

Mr O’Connell called for “flexibility and common sense” from employers regarding childcare responsibilities in the event of further school closures because of Covid-19.

He said workers should not face situations where they are required to take unpaid leave to look after children as a result of school closures, or where a school instructs children to stay at home.

He stated: “Should staff miss work, having followed medical advice and guidance, they should not suffer any loss of earnings. Those absences should not be counted as part of absence management policies.”

Mr O’Connor said the FSU has contacted all banks to ensure appropriate procedures are in place to protect staff as the coronavirus spreads.

Lower paid workers may be hardest hit by virus – SIPTU

Meanwhile a leading trade unionist has said gig economy and other lower paid workers are set to be hardest hit financially if affected by the coronavirus. 

Addressing a seminar on the need for a Living Wage, SIPTU research economist Michael Taft described the level of social protection available for workers without contractual sick pay entitlements through an employer’s scheme as “anaemic”. 

Mr Taft cited low pay sectors in the domestic economy including retail, hospitality and administrative services where staff were likely to suffer financial hardship on top of the physical hardship of being sick. 

He said the first problem was that workers in that position who fall ill or have to self-isolate would have to rely on the state’s Illness Benefit. 

However, he noted that some workers – particularly gig economy workers who are classified as self-employed – might not have enough PRSI contributions to qualify for Illness Benefit. 

He praised arrangements on the continent, where some countries provide for 100% of salary for the first two weeks, followed by pay-related benefits after that. 

However, he said benefits in Ireland were inadequate, as they are flat-rated at just over €200 a week. 

He also noted that even if a worker qualifies for full Illness Benefit, there is no entitlement at all for the first six days of absence from work. 

This encourages the phenomenon of “presenteeism” where people go to work despite being sick, he added. 

Mr Taft said just because someone became sick should not mean that they have to suffer a fall in living standards, adding that the whole point of a social wage was to protect a person’s income when they are out of work.  

He described Ireland’ s social protection system  as being based on “poverty amelioration rather than actual social protection”.  

Mr Taft also said that higher paid workers are not only more likely to be working for employers who provide for sick pay, but are also more likely to have savings to cushion the loss of pay if ill.

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