The lack of statutory sick pay is one of the most glaring examples of our failings exposed by the pandemic, Patricia King told the Oireachtas.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary made a speech on Wednesday detailing the issues surrounding mandatory sick pay in Ireland and how many are failing to provide it at such an economically ambiguous time.
"Sick pay is at the employer’s discretion to include in a contract of employment," she told the Oireachtas.
"As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers mainly in private sector jobs, including many essential workers, are not covered for sick pay and face being forced out of financial necessity to continue to work unwell or to rely on social protection. Illness Benefit is onerous to access and inadequate for most workers’ needs."
Almost all of the EU27 Member States require employers to provide a minimum period of paid sick leave to their workers.
With the exception of those covered by an SEO or ERO, workers in Ireland have no legal right to sick pay.
According to the Irish Government website, an employee who is unable to work due to illness or injury will be entitled to receive State paid Illness Benefit, after six days of absence, if they have made sufficient PRSI contributions.
"The trade union movement has long recognised that our voluntary sick pay provision isn’t working," she continued.
"However, it took a pandemic to bring the longstanding flaws in the current arrangement to wider attention, in particular clusters among meat plant workers denied paid sick leave by highly profitable employers. On foot of our calls for legislation to make sick pay mandatory in the significant public and political attention that followed, Government has committed to introduce a statutory sick pay scheme by the end of 2021."
Statutory Sick Pay Scheme
Back in November, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar announced that he would be looking for feedback on his plans for a new Statutory Sick Pay Scheme.
"The government has committed to enacting statutory sick pay legislation in Ireland by the end of 2021," the announcement reads.
"It will be the latest in a series of actions that have improved social protections for workers over the last five years, including paternity benefit, parental leave benefit, enhanced maternity benefit and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed."
In most countries, employees may by law, collective agreement or at the discretion of the employer, be entitled to sick pay, either for an initial shorter period of absence or for the entire duration of sick leave.
Most EU Member States provide a double payment arrangement, with a period paid by the employer (in full or in part) followed by benefits paid by the social protection system. Where sick pay is only for an initial shorter period of absence, it is usually followed by sickness benefit for the entire duration of sick leave.
"Our unusual practice of social insurance funding sick pay from the outset exposes the Exchequer to greater liabilities than those countries with a statutory scheme," Ms King continued.
"Department of Social Protection officials estimate each week of employer-funded statutory sick pay would reduce the draw on the Social Insurance Fund by €35 million - money that should instead be funding other social benefits for workers.
"Having convinced Government of the necessity to introduce statutory sick pay, the priority for Congress is now to deliver a fit-for-purpose scheme - one which does not serve to displace current collectively agreed sick pay schemes; which will improve working conditions and protect workers’ health and incomes; replace the current voluntary approach to sick pay with a statutory obligation on employers to provide a minimum period of paid sick leave; bring workers’ basic entitlements into line with European norms."
Photo shows Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) General Secretary, Patricia King arriving at the Dail. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie