Wednesday, 15 September 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Covid-19 Pandemic Supports
55. To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he or his Department has considered any mechanisms that could accommodate workers who need to stay at home with a self-isolating schoolchild due to Covid-19 or due to being a close contact of a person with Covid-19; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43732/21]
In recent days, we have received many phone calls from parents of children who have had to self-isolate. It is important to stress that in such incidents, the parents are not necessarily close contacts themselves but are the parents of children who are close contacts. Accordingly, they cannot qualify for enhanced illness benefit and are not eligible for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. Some will have employers that are reasonable, thank God, and they will work with them and so on, but some are in difficult circumstances, particularly those on low and middle incomes or in insecure employment. This has been discussed for about a year and we have been raising the need to provide leave for parents and to support them financially where their children have to stay home from school because they are self-isolating.
From the outset of Covid-19, many employers have taken the initiative, in line with subsequent requests from the Government, to be as flexible as possible in allowing staff to take time off to look after their children who are not attending school or crèche. Employers have a general duty of care towards their workers and that care is often expressed in the form of negotiation, compromise and flexibility. Some options to be considered for workers with caring responsibilities that preclude them from working their normal hours in the normal way pre-Covid may include: offering paid compassionate leave; allowing employees to work from home; altering shifts in order that employees can co-ordinate caring between themselves and partners or another person; allowing employees to rearrange holidays; allowing employees to rearrange parental leave; allowing employees to take paid time off that can be worked back at a later time; or allowing employees to take unpaid leave until they can return to work fully or part time.
Now, with more than 90% of the adult population fully vaccinated, being a close contact of someone who has tested positive does not mean that a person has to self-isolate. Now they only have to do so if they have symptoms. Employees in such circumstances should follow the up-to-date public health advice and consult their employer. As the Deputy will be aware, the public health response to Covid-19 is constantly monitored, including in regard to approaches to testing, contact tracing, outbreak management, surveillance and sequencing. It is also under review in the context of planning for an overall transition in our approach to the management of Covid-19 and treating it as an endemic illness. The review will inform the development of a future public health response strategy and approach for the coming months, including the question of whether children should have to stay home from school in these circumstances.
As for social welfare payments, an enhanced illness benefit payment for Covid-19 was introduced as a short-term public health measure last year. It is payable for two weeks where a person is self-isolating as a probable source of infection and for up to ten weeks where a person has been diagnosed with Covid-19. Certification by a registered medical professional is required to support any claim for the special Covid-19 illness payment.
That is all true and I am sure it is fine and so on, but the Tánaiste will recognise that he did not address all the issues I identified. Many employers are great and will work with employees; we are not discussing those employers or the need for legal obligations to ensure they will continue to be reasonable. If they are going to be reasonable, that is fine. We are talking about employers that are not going to be reasonable. They are the minority - there is no question about that - but there is a minority that will not be reasonable.
The Tánaiste mentioned close contacts and the changes that have taken place in that regard.
There is no proposal to vaccinate children, in particular primary school children, at this point in time. We will still be dealing with a situation where they have to self isolate. Their close contacts - their parents - do not qualify for the enhanced illness benefit. They will still be in a position where they will have to stay home and probably take time off. We talk about working from home, but if you have a primary school child of seven years of age or five years of age and an infant as well, there is not a hope of any work being done, realistically. Over the course of the last year, we have been raising this issue as essential to supporting parents and to ensure they are able to work with the reopening of schools. There is still no action on it. The obvious route is the expansion of force majeureleave. Has the Tánaiste considered that?
As is always the case in these scenarios, you have to look at it from the point of view of the parent and of the employer. Particularly where the parent is a lone parent, their having to take time off work could be very injurious. There would be lost income and they do not have somebody else co-parenting with them to help out. Therefore, all the income in the household is lost, not just one of the two incomes. From the point of view the employer, if somebody takes time off to look after a child who is sick or self isolating, the employer has to pay a replacement, in many cases. The employer has to pay that person as well. That could be a real difficulty for the employer or the business. I imagine that this problem arose before Covid-19. For as long as I can remember, parents had to take time off work to look after sick kids. There is a new aspect to that now, which is that kids are told to self isolate. It is difficult to work out.
If I am entitled to speak again, I would just ask the Tánaiste to genuinely consider that. Yes, this was an issue before Covid-19, but this is increasing in frequency and it is not going to go away. It will continue to be an issue, even if the guidelines are changed on self isolation.