Tuesday, 16 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Employment Support Services
The reason I raise this issue is that the workers in placement and the staff in this very successful service located in my neighbourhood of Bluebell, but covering all of Dublin west, have been told that the service is to close at the end of the year. Those who have a physical or mental disability and who were returning to the workplace or beginning work for the first time have been able to engage with EmployAbility in west Dublin and be supported in advance of a job being found for them. The supporting specialists involved, seven in total, I believe, worked with up to 130 people annually and supported them and the employers to ensure they could overcome any challenges that may arise in their first 18 months of employment.
I am aware from local people who have come through the services of the great scheme that exists and the work that is involved. It would be a tragedy if the service were to disappear. Some of those who are currently in this supported employment environment would overnight, on 31 December, lose their job coaches. They might not rely on them each day, but they know they are there in the event of a problem arising. I am told that EmployAbility has 70 workers on its books at present and, of them, 30 will still be in supported employment when the closure happens. The only reason for the low numbers at present, as 130 people are normally in the service, is that EmployAbility has not been taking Department of Social Protection referrals since the summer in preparation for the closure. The Department should be well aware of the imminent closure at this stage and should have taken steps to address the issues I will outline.
There are another 23 EmployAbility services across the country. I believe they are independent of each other and I am not sure if other services are contemplating closure due to either inadequate Department of Social Protection funding, the predicted privatisation of services that is happening with the tender which is undermining the local employment service, LES, and jobs clubs or otherwise. However, there is an imperative here. The Department must step in and ensure a seamless transfer of the services to another service provider and the continued employment of the seven or eight support specialists, who have years of experience between them. Failing this, all those in supported employment must be engaged with in advance of the closure date and reassured by the Department that the Department will take care of their needs. The Department of Social Protection must also take it upon itself to reassign others who were due to be placed with EmployAbility in west Dublin to other appropriate services, given the already identified needs they have, and to ensure that they can continue to engage with the workplace.
There is also a need for the Department of Social Protection or the St. John of God organisation, which is also involved in this project, to resolve who is going to pay for the redundancy of the workers, who between them have from 20 to five years service. Both organisations will continue to exist after the closure date, but EmployAbility in west Dublin appears to be closing on 31 December so the workers will have to fight to get their redundancy packages. It is only the statutory amount of two weeks per year of loyal work, whereas they deserve a great deal more. They also deserve to have their redundancy package resolved in advance of them being made redundant at the end of December.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, who could not be present. I thank Deputy Ó Snodaigh for raising this issue. He is correct that the work that is carried on through the 24 providers of the EmployAbility service is essential and successful. The job coaching has been a great support for many over the years.
The Department of Social Protection contracts with 24 providers to deliver employability services. These services supplement the Department’s internal Intreo service through the provision of targeted supports for jobseekers with a disability. I can confirm that the Department recently offered a contract to the board of EmployAbility in west Dublin to provide services for a further year in 2022. The board has formally declined this offer and, regrettably, the Department must respect the decision of the board. I wish to be clear that it is the decision of the board, not forced on it by the Department. It would be inappropriate for me to comment in detail on matters particular to a third-party contractor. However, it is my understanding from the intensive engagement the Department has had with this contractor over the recent period that the decision not to recontract is entirely an internal matter, unrelated to the terms and conditions of the contract for service with the Department. It is not the case, as the Deputy said, that it is to do with inadequate funding or with predicted or assumed changes coming down the track. They are not the reasons.
As the Deputy is aware, the Department of Social Protection is reviewing the structure and procurement of all its externally contracted employment support services. The provision of the EmployAbility service, its procurement and its structure will form part of this review. Over the course of next year, the Department will be examining options regarding the design of the EmployAbility model, and the provision of services in the former area of operations of EmployAbility in west Dublin will form part of these design considerations. That work has not happened yet, so what is going to happen there cannot be assumed or predicted. As part of this process the Department will engage with all relevant stakeholders.
As always, the first option for any person seeking assistance in returning to or improving their prospects in the workforce, whether in receipt of a jobseeker’s payment or not, is to contact the Department’s Intreo service. Intreo case officers will be able provide the necessary professional support and assistance and, if appropriate, identify any further service that the person may benefit from accessing. I therefore encourage anyone in the area who is seeking employment advice and support to contact his or her local Intreo office, which will provide the person with the necessary supports and advice. That is what the offices do daily. In many areas they engage extra help and assistance through external providers. If that is not available, the Intreo office will do the work itself. I should be clear about that. In all cases, a case worker would be employed to guide somebody through the system. The Deputy has engaged as a member and chair of the committee quite a lot over the years so he knows the value of the work that is carried out through the Intreo offices, along with many of their external service providers as well.
I am glad to receive some clarification. I was not sure what the reason was for it, which is why I referred to another reason. If there is a State contract there and it was offered, has it been offered to any other service provider? The nearby EmployAbility in south Dublin or in north Dublin might be able, if resourced properly, to take up the services and perhaps employ some of the people who are working directly with these people, or take on the employers who place people who have availed of the EmployAbility service. Yes, I recognise the great work that Intreo case officers do, but this is a specialist line of work that requires specialist care.
That is why these contracts have been offered over the years to the EmployAbility West service. It is vital especially given that there are people who are in supported employment at the moment and need the services. What steps are being taken to prevent the service collapsing altogether with the loss of the expertise and the loss of support for those workers and the employers who have helped in ensuring that those who have a disability or those who suffer with mental health issues can be supported in returning to the workplace or starting in the workplace in the first instance?
Do the various sections in the Department of Social Protection talk to each other? This is a Department of Social Protection contract. It needs to ensure that the workers who are expecting to be made redundant on 31 December do not need to go to the Labour Court to get the redundancy to which they are entitled given their service and given that it will come from the Department. One section needs to talk to the other.
I had meant to address the redundancy part in the opening statement. I will deal with some of the Deputy's questions. Those who are assisted by this service will receive letters between now and December explaining the pathway for them and how they can engage with Intreo offices in future. The service will be reviewed. The Deputy asked if the contract could be secured by another party. I am sure that option is open. I will also raise that with the Department. Generally, these contracts are agreed for a year at a time and they would normally be up for renewal during the months of August and September. There might be an opportunity to do that. I can guarantee that a service will be provided to these people. They certainly will not be left without a service.
Regarding the number of people employed, I think the Deputy mentioned seven or nine. There were 7.4 whole-time equivalent job coaches and 9.5 whole-time equivalent staff. It might be possible for those staff to re-engage with another service provider in the area. As he knows, there are three covering Dublin.
Regarding redundancy, I want to be clear that there is no reason for them to go to the Labour Court. Statutory redundancy is available to anyone in this country without needing to go anywhere near the Labour Court. In this case it is the employer's responsibility by law to pay statutory redundancy to eligible employees. An eligible employee is entitled to two weeks' remuneration for every year of service plus a bonus week. Normal weekly remuneration is subject to a ceiling of €600 per week. If an employer cannot pay statutory redundancy to eligible employees due to financial difficulties or insolvency, the State will always ensure that employees receive their statutory entitlements by making the statutory redundancy payments on behalf of the employer from the Social Insurance Fund.
There is no need to involve the Labour Court whatsoever. That is set out in law and is always paid out. In such situations a debt is raised against the employer. The Department of Social Protection applies a flexible and discretionary approach to the recovery of the debt because some employers cannot pay this due to insufficient funds. Generally, the Social Insurance Fund pays it out and the employer, in most cases a business, can be pursued. The situation would probably be a bit different here but the Department can pursue the money at a later stage. The former employees will not be left waiting for their money in those situations.