With the rapid global spread of coronavirus and the number of Irish diagnoses quickly on the rise, employers and indeed employees should first and foremost focus on safety.

The Workplace Relations Commission have issued a Guidance Note to deal with some of the practical queries arising from the emerging public health crisis and the key points are addressed below.

So what are the employer obligations?

Employers have a duty of care to ensure, so far as practical, the safety, health and welfare of employees at work. 

In light of the global Covid-19 coronavirus emergency, employers should carry out risk assessments and identify the risk of employees contracting the virus. Duties by law include the provision of facilities, arrangements, information and instruction for the welfare of employees at work. 

In case of the coronavirus these measures may include;

  • providing alcohol-based hand sanitisers
  • advising employees to stay at home if they experience flu-like symptoms
  • reminding employees about good cough etiquette and hand-washing requirements
  • Employers need to be able to show they have given employees accurate information about ways to prevent the spread of infection
  • Employers should also review terms of employment contracts, noting that pay arrangements between employers and employees during periods of illness related absences are dependent on such contractual terms and conditions.

While the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called on employers to pay staff as normal if they are directed to self-isolate due to the virus, there is no statutory entitlement for an employee to be paid by their employer in the event that they are absent from work. 

Employers should engage proactively with employees, by;

  • exploring working remotely or from home as alternative options to unpaid sick leave
  • considering an agreement to work back the hours or days lost by the employee
  • and/or opening alternative days to recoup time.

Considering these types of options may prevent disputes with employees in the long run and avoid referrals to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

What are the employee obligations?

Employees also have obligations by law to ensure they do not pose a threat to the safety of others in the workplace. 

Employees should follow the advice of the HSE and HPSC to protect their health and that of others. 

As outlined above pay is dependent on the terms and conditions of the individual employee’s contract and in many cases, this means employees are not entitled to be paid during sick leave. In those circumstances, employees may be entitled to social welfare payments which may provide some comfort. 

The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are introducing measures to provide income support to people affected by COVID-19 Coronavirus.

3 major changes have been announced:

  • the personal rate of Illness Benefit will increase from €203 per week to €350 per week for a maximum of 2 weeks medically-required self-isolation or for the full duration of absence from work following a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 (Coronavirus)
  • Ministers also gave the go-ahead for a scheme which will see the Government pay 70 per cent of a workers’ salary - up to maximum of €410 per week - where the company agrees to continue paying the remainder of the salary.
  • the normal social insurance requirements for Illness Benefit will be changed or the means test for Supplementary Welfare Allowance will be removed.

Although the WRC has advised employers that where the ability of a business to provide work to its employees is impacted, an employer may put employees on a period of "layoff", employees should note that such periods of layoff are unpaid. 

Similarly, however laid-off employees may be entitled to social welfare payments and affected employees should contact the Department of Social Welfare for further information

The Government has also urged all employers to support national public health objectives by continuing, as a minimum, to pay employees who cannot attend work due to Covid-19 illness or self-isolation the difference between the special Illness Benefit rate and their normal wages.  Notwithstanding this however, contractually speaking this is of course a matter for the employer and an employer is not obliged to do so.

In circumstances where it seems likely the Coronavirus will continue to spread over the coming days and weeks, employers and employees should act prudently and monitor government and HSE advice to minimise losses all round. 

Article by: Marie Hynes, Associate Solicitor at Augustus Cullen Law LLP. Augustus Cullen Law LLP is based at 7 Wentworth Place, Wicklow. If you would like more information on this topic, call +353 404 67412 or email info@aclsolicitors.ie

 


11 March 2020

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