As the true impact of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic becomes apparent, employers are facing unprecedented challenges in protecting their employees and customers from the virus while keeping their businesses afloat.
Duty of Irish Employers:
Employers have a legal obligation to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of their employees under the Safety, Health and Welfare Act (the 2005 Act) and are required to take steps to comply with their obligations regarding workplace health and safety. Employee health, safety and well-being during a health crisis such as this is paramount and employers need to be proactive to protect their employees and minimise risk. Employees also have a duty to take reasonable care of their own health and safety and that of people they work with. They must co-operate with their employer to enable it to comply with its duties under health and safety legislation.
While many businesses have directed their employees to work remotely or have temporarily closed their doors, others are still operating and their owners are facing difficult decisions concerning how to balance their employees’ right to a safe work environment with the health of the business.
Employers should consider some simple precautions to help protect the health and safety of everyone during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It’s good practice for employers to:
- Follow official Government and public health advice. Employers need to keep up to date with the situation as it develops and keep employees informed.
- Ensure employees are taking all necessary precautions in the workplace to minimise risk to include good hygiene practices, providing alcohol-based hand sanitisers and tissues in the office, encouraging employees to reduce personal contact and to wash hands regularly, support remote working to reduce face to face contact as necessary, and training employees on recognising coronavirus symptoms and the steps they should take if they suspect they may have come into contract with someone who is infected.
- Consider displaying posters on “cough etiquette”, hand and respiratory hygiene and safe food practices.
- Regularly clean frequently-touched communal areas, including door handles, kitchens, toilets, showers, and desk keyboards, phones and desks.
- Keep staff up-to-date with internal policies and protocols in relation to the Coronavirus.
- Be flexible and pre-emptive: Given that fewer employees attending the workplace will naturally reduce the spread of infections, employers may consider facilitating employees to work from home or allowing them to work remotely where possible.
Current government advice is for everyone to try and stop unnecessary contact with other people – ‘social distancing’. The Government has encouraged employers to allow employees to work from home where possible, and be as flexible as possible in their response to the restrictions that are now in place. There are however welfare allowances available to employees in a number of different scenarios where financial assistance is needed.
People with no work or reduced hours:
Your employer may decide to close their business for this period and send you home. This is called a temporary lay-off. If your employer cannot pay for this period, you can apply for a special new COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
This new payment will be available to employees and self-employed people who have lost employment due to a downturn in economic activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. People getting Working Family Payment and students who have lost employment can also apply. The payment has a simple one–page application form and will be paid for a period of 6 weeks at a flat rate payment of €203 per week for jobseekers.
If your employer reduces your hours to 3 days or less per week from your normal full-time hours, you can apply for a payment called Short Time Work Support which is a form of Jobseeker’s Benefit.
People who are sick and cannot work:
The rules for Illness Benefit and Supplementary Welfare Allowance are being changed to help prevent the transmission of coronavirus. The changes mean that if you are diagnosed with COVID-19 or are suspected of having COVID-19 and are medically required to self-isolate, you can get income support.
The changes are:
- You will not have to wait 6 days before you can apply for Illness Benefit. This means Illness Benefit can cover the first week of a COVID-19 diagnosis (or medically-required self-isolation) and any subsequent weeks.
- The personal rate of Illness Benefit will increase from €203 to €305 per week for up to 2 weeks if you are medically required to self-isolate, or for the duration of your medically-certified absence from work with a COVID-19 diagnosis. The new enhanced Illness Benefitrate will be effective from 9 March 2020 and workers will be entitled to a refund of any arrears due from this date when the legislation is in place.
- The normal social insurance requirements for Illness Benefit will be waived or the means test for Supplementary Welfare Allowancewill be removed, if you are medically required to self-isolate or diagnosed with COVID-19.
The Government has also stated that self-employed people will be able to get either Illness Benefit or Supplementary Welfare Allowance.
If you work in the civil and public sector, you do not need to apply for enhanced Illness Benefit as separate leave arrangements are in place.
People who cannot work because they have to look after their children:
As schools and child care facilities throughout the country have temporarily closed, this will have an effect on care and working arrangements. This may be an anxious time for parents, and employers will need to be planning cover at work. At present there are no specific payments for people who cannot work because they have to look after children who are off school.
The Government has asked employers to be as flexible as possible in allowing staff time off to look after their children or other members of their families. This could include:
- Offering paid compassionate leave
- Allowing you to work from home
- Altering your shifts, so that you can coordinate caring between you and your partner, or another person.
- Allowing you to rearrange holidays
- Allowing you to take paid time off that you can work back at a later time
If you have no income while you are caring at home you may be able to claim Supplementary Welfare Allowance.
If you lose your job or your hours at work are reduced:
If your income is a mixture of both earnings from employment and a social welfare payment and you lose your job or your hours at work are reduced because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you cannot apply for the new COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment unless you are getting a Working Family Payment.
For example, if you are getting a jobseeker’s payment, One-Parent Family Payment, Carer’s Allowance or Disability Allowance, you should not apply for the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
If your social welfare payment was reduced because of your earnings, it will be reassessed and you will get any increases due to you. You need to tell the DEASP that you have had a reduction in your earnings from work.
If you are getting a Working Family Payment and have lost employment due to the coronavirus pandemic, you can apply for the new COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
These unprecedented times will require communities to pull together and employers and employees to work in tandem to seek to find novel ways of weathering the covid-19 storm together.