Is the new regime the right prescription for low-wage workers?

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One of the things that always bothered Leo Varadkar when he was a general practitioner was the number of patients who could not afford time off from work.

They would come to his office, ask for medication, and although he advised them to rest, they went straight back to work.

It struck him how tough they were that they would rather do this – and risk infecting other workers – than leave without getting paid.

Fast forward to today, and the former junior doctor at St James’s Hospital and Connolly Hospital is now the head of Ireland’s first statutory sickness benefit scheme.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) and groups like Cork People Before Profit TD Mick Barry have campaigned for years for a statutory sick pay scheme.

If all legislative hurdles pass through the Oireachtas this year, it will be in place sometime in 2022 and workers will receive 70% of their daily wages for the first year, the first three days of sick leave.

They must, however, produce a sickness certificate from their general practitioner and must have worked for the company for at least six months.

Employment Minister Leo Varadkar heads the first statutory sickness benefit scheme in Ireland.

When the government approved the drafting of the bill on the general sick leave scheme for 2021 in June, the employment minister called it “part of the pandemic dividend”.

“It is not fair that people feel pressured to go to work when they are sick and it is not good for public health,” he said at the time.

Asked about his personal motivation behind his involvement in the program, he told the Irish Examiner: “As a doctor, I have often had patients who could not take time off when they were sick because they could not afford to lose a few days of salary.

“It always bothered me because it delayed their recovery, and when they had an infectious disease they risked spreading the disease.

“In other jobs, in some cases, they could have posed a risk to themselves and to others if they had not been able to concentrate on their work due to the pain or fever during the use of equipment. ”

Unintended consequences

There are those who think that the program goes too far – or not enough.

And regardless of which camp you find yourself in, both sides agree that it may well have unforeseen consequences.

Ictu’s head of social policy and employment affairs, Dr Laura Bambrick, said the program was “overdue for decades.”

“Sadly, it took a global pandemic for Irish politicians to commit to upholding this basic workers’ right,” she said.

“Following the Ictu’s public awareness campaign on one of the root causes of the Covid-19 epidemics in meat factories and our successful calls to make sickness benefits mandatory, legislation will be introduced . ”

She added: “This legislation enjoys overwhelming public support.”

“Following Ictu’s public awareness campaign on one of the root causes of the Covid-19 epidemics in meat processing plants and our successful calls to make sickness benefits mandatory, legislation will be introduced. “

However, among union reservations about the new scheme, there are concerns over the requirement that not only do an employee have to work for six months before they can claim sick pay, but that they also need to work for sick pay. ” a general practitioner certificate.

“This has the potential to cause some employers to opt for casual employment contracts to avoid their obligation under the law,” she said.

While the requirement to have the illness certified by a doctor is common practice in sickness benefit schemes across Europe, Ireland is unusual in that workers have to pay to see a general practitioner. .

“The Ictu is concerned that this cost could create a barrier for workers exercising their new right to paid sick leave.

“We will be pushing for an amendment to the bill at committee stage so that a certain number of sick days are ‘uncertified’ in order to circumvent our lack of free basic health care.”

Mick Barry TD also has his own reservations.

His campaign on the sickness benefit issue includes issues in 2005 regarding migrant contract workers involved in major regeneration projects in Cork City.

People Before Profit TD Mick Barry: “The sad reality is that this program cannot stand up to those enjoyed by workers in some other European countries.  File photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins
People Before Profit TD Mick Barry: “The sad reality is that this program cannot stand up to those enjoyed by workers in some other European countries. File photo: Gareth Chaney / Collins

“Fine Gael has trumpeted the new sick pay scheme as a sure sign that they are in the working class,” he said.

“But the sad reality is that this regime cannot stand up to those enjoyed by workers in some other European countries.

“In Germany a worker will receive 100% of his salary for the first six weeks, while in Ireland it will only be 70% of his salary for the first 10 days in a few years.

I’m also concerned that the six-month rule may cause some unscrupulous employers to fire staff before they reach the six-month mark.

“I think this rule should be removed.”

According to the government, the 70% sickness benefit rate and daily cap aim to ensure that “excessive costs” are not blamed solely on employers, who may also have to bear the cost of replacing ill staff in the short term. term.

He says the bill is primarily aimed at providing a “minimum level of protection” to low-wage employees, who may have no entitlement to the company’s sickness benefit plans.

The fact that it is phased in over four years is, according to the government, a sign that it is taking what it describes as “a balanced approach to filling a well-known gap in our social protections.”

And he says he’s doing it while addressing “small business cost concerns in today’s economic environment.”

The Irish Small to Medium Enterprises Association (Isme) is, like the Ictu, in favor of a statutory sickness benefit scheme, but its members have reservations.

Managing Director Neil McDonnell said, “Employers pay 11% PRSI for a very low benefit package.

“We agree that the employers’ PRSI is low by European standards.

But our social insurance system does not work like a social insurance system. It works like a tax system.

“And while employers put 11% into the fund with no cap, the benefits that come with it are all fixed.”

He says the high social benefits make it “very difficult, very expensive” to employ people.

“What we would worry about is that in Geneva they have a really strange social problem there in that none of the Geneva workers can afford to live there.

“So we have to be very, very careful with the cost of living and the cost of employment, because as you increase that, you make it much more expensive to hire people.”

A fisherman, whose income comes entirely from his share of the fish caught on each trip, told the Irish Examiner they will not benefit from the plan.

“Only very large boats have protections for their fishermen,” they said.

“Basically, if you’re sick, it’s bad luck.

“Most trawler owners can’t afford anything else.

Facts

Mary Watters, Regional Director of North Dublin Citizens Information, provides information, advice and advocacy on public and social services.

The Citizens Information Board provides the Citizens Information website, citizeninformation.ie, and supports the network of Citizens Information Centers and the Citizens Information Phone Service.

It also finances and supports the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs), the free, independent and confidential service for people in debt or at risk of getting into debt.

“We would receive people from all walks of life,” Ms. Watters said.

“The most difficult are probably the people who would be considered to have better incomes and a better standard of living.

“When they run into roadblocks in their life, they are often less prepared.

“Many of them have no experience of having to manage with less money.

“People who have struggled their entire lives have had to access the social protection system earlier in their lives and tend to be better equipped to cope with the challenges that afflict them. Illness and terminal illnesses do not choose which income bracket to touch. They hit the entire income bracket. “

She said the new program would help alleviate the hardships for people in the early days of an illness.

“A lot of people just don’t realize that there are a lot more supporters out there than they realize. ”

The advantages in figures

The Department of Social Protection spent € 593 million on regular sickness benefits in 2020.

On top of that, an enhanced sickness benefit – for people diagnosed with Covid-19 or who are a ‘likely source’ of infection with the virus – was introduced in March 2020.

Expenditure for increased sickness benefit amounted to € 57 million in 2020.

Some 68 million euros were paid from January to the end of September of this year and are expected to be around 84 million euros for the whole of 2021.


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