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Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the implications for employment law

With Ireland in lockdown, there’s no denying the impact this will have on businesses in the coming weeks and months. From sick pay to homeworking, for employees and employers, knowing your rights and obligations during this time is crucial.

Here, we set out summary guidance for employers and employees to provide clarity and address the current legal position on some of the most significant employment law issues at this time. For urgent advice on employment issues during the pandemic, contact us on 074 9890190 or complete our online enquiry form.

Sick pay

Are employees entitled to sick pay if they are self-isolating?

Under the current government guidelines, employees who follow the advice to stay at home and self-isolate by the HSE will be entitled to an Enhanced Illness Benefit payment of €350.00 if they are a possible source of infection or if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 by a doctor.

To be eligible for this payment a person must be confined to their home or a medical facility.

How much is the rate of Enhanced Illness Benefit?

The personal rate of ‘regular’ Illness Benefit prior to the pandemic was €203.00. This was increased to €305.00 in response to the COVID-19 crisis and again on 24th March to €350.00 to match the COVID unemployment payment. Anyone affected by COVID-19 in receipt of the lesser rates will receive the difference as the backlog is worked through.

Enhanced Illness Benefit will be paid for a maximum of two weeks to a person who is self-isolating due to being a possible source of infection.

The enhanced rate will be paid for a maximum of ten weeks if a person has been diagnosed with COVID-19. The period will be determined by the certification of a doctor but cannot exceed 10 weeks.

Does an absence from work due to coronavirus need to be certified?

If you have been advised by the HSE to self-isolate due to being a possible source of infection you will have received a text or letter from the HSE. You can submit this with your application form and you do NOT need a medical certificate.

However, if you have been told to self-isolate by your doctor or diagnosed with COVID-19 by your doctor, he/she will complete a medical certificate and will send it to the Department dealing with your application directly.

If you are returning from abroad and following HSE self-isolation advice, and if your employer is not paying you for that absence, you can ask your g.p. to complete a medical certificate and submit it to apply for Enhanced Illness Benefit.

If you require two successive periods of self-isolation, you must submit two separate claims and a further medical certificate will be required for the second application.

Employees should follow their employer’s standard procedure for reporting sickness and obtaining a certificate from your doctor for your employer. If you are not clear on what that procedure is in your place of employment, you should ask your employer for a copy of the policy and procedure dealing with this.

For employers – employers should use their discretion and be flexible when requesting medical certification even if tis in line with their own procedures. If an employee is self-isolating or very ill, it is more than likely that we will not be able to obtain certification straight away.

Find out more

Employees can find out more about their rights to sick pay at this time, in our article here.

Working from home

To limit the spread of infection, where possible, businesses and employers should be encouraging their employees to work from home.

Homeworking should be facilitated where possible

Even when employees are working from home, employers still owe a duty of care. This includes responsibility for any equipment, so it is important that employees are provided with the correct tools to work safely and effectively from home. Employers should also ensure they are supporting their employees and workers adjustment to homeworking. This could be done by:

  • Maintaining regular contact with employees
  • Making reasonable adjustments for employees with disabilities
  • Ensuring employees are comfortable with the work they are being asked to do at home

Ensuring employees safety at work

Clearly, it will not always be practical for employees and workers to work from home where the business is designated as an ‘essential service’. In such circumstances, businesses and employers should be taking all reasonable precautions to ensure safety in the workplace. As an employer you have a statutory obligation to provide a safe place of work for your employees. This includes:

  • Providing accessible handwashing facilities to all staff members, including providing hand sanitiser, gloves and masks
  • Ensuring work areas are sanitised regularly.
  • Implementing social distancing in line with HSE requirements
  • Senior staff being able to spot the signs of coronavirus and taking proper action
  • Ensuring staff do not attend when showing signs of any illness.

Using annual leave

Generally, employees and workers are encouraged to take their full annual leave allocation. However, given the current coronavirus pandemic, this may not be possible at this time. Therefore, employees might be coming to the end of their leave year with holidays left to use.

No change to rules on taking annual leave

An employee is not permitted to carry over unused annual leave to a new leave year unless with the consent of their employer. Neither is an employee entitled to seek to be paid for annual leave not taken, unless that employee was not allowed to take leave during the relevant leave year.

Can an employee cancel time off that has been previously booked?

Should they require, employers have the right to tell employees and workers when to take holidays, subject to certain conditions. Therefore, if an employee has previously booked time off that they now want to cancel, their employer can refuse this request and tell them to take the time off.

This is the same if the workplace must temporarily close; employers can require their employees to use their holiday entitlement during this time. However if an employee falls ill, the sick days do not count as annual leave.

Time off for dependants

Due to the current pandemic, all schools, colleges and nurseries in Ireland are now closed. This undoubtedly presents further difficulties for parents and employers in terms of working and childcare arrangements.

Do employees have a right to take time off to look after children?

If an employee needs to take time off to make childcare arrangements or look after children, they will have the following possible options:

  • Taking holidays – it might be possible for an employee to use some or all of their annual leave if this is agreed to by their employer.
  • The employee may be entitled to maternity or paternity leave, force majeure leave and/or parental leave depending on whether you are still eligible or have previously used up all of that leave.
  • Working from home may be a possibility if your employer agrees to it, adjusting working hours so that parents can juggle childcare between them.
  • In some circumstances if you are no longer being paid, you may qualify for the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment of €350.00 per week.

However, if an employee is expected to be at work by their employer in an ‘essential service’, the employer is entitled to insist that they attend. If the employee refuses to attend, this would be classified as a breach of the employment contract and a disciplinary matter.

What can employers do to help their staff with childcare responsibilities?

The most important thing employers can do is communicate regularly with their staff to see if they can work together to find a solution that suits both parties. There may be an option of flexible working; whether this is working from home (which should be encouraged at this stage) or changing their hours to suit childcare responsibilities. For example, if an employee typically works during the day, their working day could be altered to include more evening working, if this is possible.

COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme

The Covid-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme was introduced by the Government to reduce the number of job losses due to coronavirus/COVID-19. The scheme means that if the employer and employee both agree, then the employee could be kept on the payroll, whether the employee is still working or not.

Employers who sign up to the scheme will be refunded up to 70% of the employee’s nett wages, up to a maximum level of €410.00 per week (until May 4th, when the rates change). The employer is encouraged to top up the payment so that the employee is paid their usual nett wage but the employer is not under any obligation to do so.

The Revenue Commissioners who run the scheme have indicated the payments will be subject to tax at the end of the year but they have not set out how that tax will be calculated as of yet.

How long can an employee be on the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme

The scheme is running for 12 weeks from the 26th March 2020. There is no indication if it will be extended beyond that point at this stage.

Find out more

For employers – find out what the Coronavirus/ COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme means for employers in our article here.

Contact our Employment Lawyers in Donegal today

Whether you are an employee concerned about your rights at work during this time, an employer trying to keep up with the constant changes in the law, or just have a general employment law query, we are on hand to assist. Contact us today on 074 9890190 or complete our online enquiry and we will be back in touch.

This guide does not constitute legal advice and is provided for general information purposes only. If you require specific legal advice you should contact one of our lawyers who can advise you based on your own circumstances.

Please note this information is accurate as of 1 May 2020 and is subject to change as official guidance is adapted to reflect the implications of the virus.

Employment Law Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the implications for employment law