Wednesday, 29 June 2022
Sick Leave Bill 2022: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following:“ “illness or injury” means a period of sickness, or impairment, affecting the body or mind;”.
It is good to see the Minister of State again. The issue with which this amendment deals arose in the Dáil. There is a concern as to whether we need a clearer definition of "illness or injury".That is why we have proposed this amendment, which seeks to define illness or injury as "a period of sickness, or impairment, affecting the body or mind". As the Minister of State will be aware from the contribution made by my colleague, Deputy Louise O'Reilly, the reason we have tabled the amendment is because legal experts have suggested that we may need a better definition of illness or injury. I do not want to labour the point, but we are concerned that the definition needs to be right. I ask the Minister of State for his own view on that.
It is good to be back in the House again to discuss this important legislation. I thank the Cathaoirleach for facilitating the debate. The issue of the definition was discussed in both Houses on a number of occasions previously. I understand the concerns that have been raised, and the Senator's amendment reflects those concerns. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, also raised the same concern. In our view, the amendment is unnecessary. The general rule is that where a term is not defined in legislation, the ordinary understanding of the term applies. It is notable that the State illness benefit scheme does not have the term as defined, and this does not lead to any difficulty. Generally, inserting a definition where none is normally used can lead to some uncertainty as to whether a different interpretation is intended. The legal opinion around the legislative process and the bringing forward of new legislation is that definitions should not be used unnecessarily. We think the amendment is not required. Other legislation has followed a similar approach. I hope the Senator accepts our disagreement on the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 2 and 9 to 13, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are physical alternatives to amendment No. 9. Amendment No. 13 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 12. Amendments Nos. 2 and 9 to 13, inclusive, may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Amendment No. 3 makes a minor but useful change to the Minister's power to set the number of sick leave days by order. As originally formulated, it would have required the Minister to specify the number of additional days to which employees would be entitled. This amendment means that an order can now simply specify the overall number of days of statutory sick leave. This reduces the risk of confusion. A single ministerial order will specify the entitlements. Amendment No. 8 aligns the language of section 6 more closely with section 5, as amended by amendment No. 3.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, to delete lines 30 to 32 and substitute the following:
“(5) An employee’s entitlement to a statutory sick leave day shall commence from their first day of employment.”.
I wish to acknowledge that when my colleagues in the Dáil expressed concerns in relation to workers who adhere to a fixed pattern of work that includes a break of a few months every year and have to complete 13 weeks' service every year to qualify for sick pay, the concerns were acknowledged and amendments were accepted. We welcome that. However, I have included this amendment to discuss the length of time currently provided for in the Bill before a worker can qualify for sick pay, that is, 13 weeks' continuous service.
The Minister of State knows as well as I do that illness and sickness do not pay any heed to how long an employee has been with an employer. I wish to raise the following point. At a meeting of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Minister of State's colleague, Deputy Bruton, stated:
Sickness can strike anyone at any time, as we have seen during Covid. It does not seem to me to have a foundation to say the right should be deferred for a period. Probation is not about sickness; it is about reliability and other things. If someone is sick and has produced a medical certificate to show that, I do not see how not offering it from the first day is justifiable.
It is not often that I say this, but Deputy Bruton is right. He is spot on in relation to the point.
It is grossly unfair that a person who is sick does not qualify for sick pay because he or she is in the first 13 weeks of employment. I am not suggesting that this was the intention when the Bill was drafted, but we have pointed out that it is unfair, and the Minister of State's own colleague, Deputy Bruton, has pointed out why it is unfair.
It seems to me that the workers' perspective has been missed in this particular aspect of the Bill. It makes perfect sense to me that workers should qualify for sick pay from the first day of their employment. As has been pointed out already, probation is an entirely different matter. Sickness does not pay heed to the fact that an employee is in the first 13 weeks of service, and only strikes after that. People can be unlucky.
The whole point of sick pay is to give people a backup, to ensure that they can be supported by their employers. That is why this legislation is being brought in. It makes sense to ensure that workers qualify for sick pay from the first day of their employment. The current provision is unfair. The good news is that the Minister of State has an opportunity to take this amendment on board. It would fix that, and ensure that from day 1 employees will qualify for sick pay. I hope the Minister of State takes the amendment on board.
I have a question in the context of two parts of section 5. I hear the points made by Senator Gavan. To me, the idea of protecting both the employer and the employee is important. I am asking the question in the context of pro ratasick pay. I accept that an employee who works a certain number of days, weeks and months will build up entitlements and an indemnity in terms of cover. To me, the bulwark of our social protection system is that we protect both the employer and the employee. Casting my mind back to the days when I was a student, I was a porter in the hospital. I am thinking of those who worked alongside me and reflecting on the experiences of those who work in sectors such as retail.
I recall that when I worked in the hospital, a colleague of mine was out sick for a long time. However, they had the buttress of the support of the social welfare system. The nature of work has changed now, particularly in the hospital system, where contract cleaners are used and different aspects of work are subcontracted out. To me, the provision of sick pay is about supporting employees so that if they become ill, they are not worried or concerned about pay coming in to the house. It is about putting a buttress around them.
I am perhaps discussing a matter relating to another section, and the Cathaoirleach may ask me speak to this section only, but I wish to raise another point that I made on Second Stage to the Tánaiste. It concerns the provision of the requirement to provide medical certificates, in respect of the cost involved in having to go to the doctor.
Under Part 2 of the Bill, the employee is entitled to up to and including three statutory sick leave days in a year. I am saying this badly, but employees build up annual leave entitlement, whether it is 20 days' leave or 21 days' leave. I am worried that we are getting the approach to sick leave entitlement wrong from day 1 of an employee's employment, if that is how Senator Gavan is reading it. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response to the amendment.There is a balance we must strike between the employer and employee. I do not think there is wholescale abuse of sick leave or sick pay among the workforce. I know this is of concern to some. I would like to hear the views of the Minister of State on this. Part 10 mentions a registered medical practitioner. I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State.
We have had quite a black and white view of entitlements for workers. In recent years we have seen how we do not have to be so black and white about things. With regard to the trust issue, in recent years we have also seen that employees can be trusted to work, and to manage their work, remotely and that sometimes the fears are greater than the reality. In saying that, it is all about finding balance. I was struck that in a survey Iceland was described as having the best approach to sick leave. In Iceland I believe that each month, people work they are able to accrue a certain number of sick days. Were various approaches examined when it came to the length of time? Has it always been the view that people reach a certain date and then get the entitlement?
I want to speak on amendments Nos. 4 and 5. This boils down to how we distinguish illness from other entitlements such as holiday leave and other leave. Illness is not something that workers invite upon themselves. I listened to Senator Buttimer. The vast majority of workers do not abuse sick pay provisions if they are provided in their workplace. The key issue is trust. We must understand that not every worker will be sick every year. We saw in the regulatory impact assessment an estimate of costs. This was based on an assumption that workers would be taking up their sick pay. Workers will not be taking up their leave if they are not sick. It must be available from day one when a worker is sick.
A seasonal worker works for a number of months in a year and may not work again for more than 26 weeks. Seasonal workers might work for three or four months over the summer and seven or eight months will pass before they take up employment again. They will not be covered. They will have to wait 13 weeks. Workers need to be able to take up sick pay from day one. We need to get rid of the 13-week wait period for an employee. If people are sick, they are sick and they need to be covered by the Bill.
I thank Senator Gavan for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation and discuss the issue again. Others have also tabled amendments. The Senator quoted what Deputy Bruton said on Committee Stage. I participated in that debate and we had a good lengthy discussion on many amendments and the Bill. It was a worthwhile discussion and we teased through the issues. We introduced some changes on Report Stage in the Dáil that deal with some of the concerns, including those raised by Senator Sherlock. We have reflected them.
To be very clear, we do not agree with these amendments and I will explain why. They would confer the right to statutory sick leave on employees from the very outset of their employment. Genuinely in our view it is difficult to see how this would be practical. Many employment rights require a certain period of qualifying employment and we think this is appropriate in this case also. The period of 13 weeks is a relatively period short to wait. We recognise that sick pay is slightly different to other benefits. We have already dealt comprehensively with the area of concern, which is the possibility that people on successive but non-continuous contracts might have to re-qualify for sick leave entitlements on a regular basis if laid off over the summer, such as in education or childcare-related jobs. This would be a difficulty and it has been dealt with.
Senator Buttimer touched on the issue of balance. We are trying to get a balance to recognise that this is a new employment law. It is a new statutory right and one of which we are all supportive. We have been discussing it for several years. We looked at quite a lot of countries. I am trying to remember whether Iceland was among them. I am sure we did because it is very much involved in many issues at European level. I will check as to whether we specifically looked at Iceland but I think we did. We spent a lot of time looking at international best practice trying to get this right and to have the entitlements at the right time. We want to make sure we get the legislation passed and that it is responsive to the needs and that we are towards the top with regard to the offering from a European point of view.
If these amendments were accepted if an employer in a shop or restaurant took on somebody for a few weeks in the summer would it be fair that an employee could end up needing ten days sick leave at the beginning and only work for a few weeks after that? Is this fair on the employer? We are trying to get the balance right because this is a cost to employers. We also want to protect jobs. An employer could genuinely take on somebody and the person could be genuinely sick for ten days and might work for no longer than a week or two after that. We believe it is best that a relationship develops between the employer and employee. We believe 13 weeks is fair. It is not a very long length of time. Other legislation provides for that relationship to be developed over six months or 12 months. In this case we are providing for 13 weeks. On balance and on reflection after plenty of debate in both Houses, we still think this is acceptable and we are refusing to accept these amendments. I hope people understand. This is about balance. There is an issue of cost for employers. It is recognised. This is a public health measure. It is to make sure people do not feel they have to go to work. It is a major addition to employment law and we accept this. It does come at great cost to employers.
Senator Sherlock asked about the regulatory impact assessment and the cost analysis. We are not in any way, shape or form assuming that people will automatically take the days but we have to look at the potential maximum impact if it did happen. Those costs are assessed. That is what we have to do in a regulatory impact analysis. It is proper order. It does not mean any of us has an assumption. In fact, it is the opposite because we understand most people want to go to work and earn their full potential. They would not take sick pay unnecessarily.
To make sure there is proper oversight of the scheme certification is required. This is also important and right and we will discuss it later. We have to protect the system and protect the balance we are trying to achieve. I hope Senators will accept that we believe 13 weeks is a reasonable timeframe for an employer and employee relationship to be developed before the sick pay legislation kicks in.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. The difficulty I have is that if we put barriers in the way of workers qualifying for sick pay they will go to work sick. If they go to work sick, they will make other people sick and that will impact the business in a detrimental way. We have been through two horrendous years of Covid. We now think we may not be out of it in the winter and it could be back again. How would it make sense in the context of what we have just been through and what we may have to face again this winter to say to workers that in the first 13 weeks of work, they will not qualify for sick pay? How does that make sense from the perspective of the employee or the employer? Let us face it, and I know this from my time as a trade union official, when workers lose sick pay they go to work sick rather than not attend because they need the money. It is as simple as that. This is my concern.
We support the Bill. We do not believe the Government has the balance right and that three days is far too short an amount of time to give at the beginning. Rather than fight the debate intensively again, let us agree that the balance needs to be struck in a way that is effective. In the context of Covid, how does it make sense to tell workers that in the first three months of their employment, they do not qualify for sick pay?In that context, if that person contracts Covid, what should he or she do?
This legislation is not just because of Covid. Certainly, Covid is forced on our minds in the context of the Bill. One of the first discussions I had when I became a Minister of State was on a Bill of this nature. It has been recognised for a long number of years that Ireland does not have a statutory sick pay scheme. Therefore, Covid or no Covid, it is an important move in the right direction.
I compliment all those involved and those who brought forward Private Members' Bills, including Senator Sherlock, that focused our minds on this issue. The Tánaiste has been very clear from an early stage that this was something he wanted to make sure we achieved throughout the lifetime of the Government. It is not just about Covid. Covid proved the necessity of this legislation without a doubt. There are arrangements in place whereby if someone has Covid, he or she is not encouraged to go to work. Enhanced illness benefit was brought in to enable that because there was a concern at the start of the pandemic that people who were employed for many years in many jobs might feel they had no choice but to go to work because of costs.
The Government is bringing in new legislation which provides new employment rights, which we believe will strengthen the employment right legislation overall. It is a positive measure and will make Ireland a more attractive place for talent to come. We also have to recognise that there is a huge cost involved in running a business, and labour costs are a massive part of that. Employers are generally quite responsible. The vast majority treat their staff extremely well. Even without legislation, they have implemented their own schemes and other employee supports. Generally, they do look after staff extremely well. This legislation is to make sure that everyone, no matter what job a person is in, has the option of a statutory sick pay scheme.
It is important that an employer-employee relationship is developed over 13 weeks before the scheme kicks in. I do not think that is unreasonable but the Senator clearly does, which is fine. We have discussed this on a number of occasions before this debate. The Government thinks it is important. I have given a very simple example of something that could actually happen whereby the employer would be left with that cost, yet there would be no relationship with the employee if that happens now.
I am conscious I am giving scenarios that would hopefully not happen but it could happen. There is a big ask of employers. I know the Senator does not necessarily understand that situation, but I do. The Department has to get the balance right. The Government wants to be able to sustain and create jobs and help small businesses to create jobs so that everybody benefits. People who take up work, offer their skills and talents, and do the job should be properly remunerated for their work. Having those jobs strengthens our position as a country to respond in many other ways, such as across health, education, public services and so on. It is important that we recognise that.
We cannot take jobs for granted either. I often find that sometimes people do take jobs, as well as the business owners and employers, for granted. We cannot do that. There is a big ask in this legislation of them, but the Government wants to get the balance right. I hope the Senator accepts that we will not be accepting his amendment, which would start the scheme on day one.
Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Pat Casey, Lisa Chambers, Ollie Crowe, Emer Currie, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Regina Doherty, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Robbie Gallagher, Pippa Hackett, Gerry Horkan, Seán Kyne, Vincent P Martin, Eugene Murphy, Pauline O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward.
I move amendment No. 6.
In page 6, between lines 6 and 7, to insert the following:
“(9) The Minister may by bringing forward a report within 3 months of the passing of this legislation on the merits of regulations providing that subsection (10) not apply until such time as the full roll out of primary healthcare free at the point of delivery has been achieved, and until such time employees shall be allowed to self-certify as being incapable of working due to illness or injury and be entitled to statutory sick leave.”.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English. This amendment is important. The reality in this State is we live in a low pay economy. Close to one quarter of workers are on low pay. On top of that we do not have the same basic State provision of GP visits and care as other European countries. These matters make the Irish context very different in regard to medical certification for access to sick pay. This is a very moderate amendment which simply asks for a report to look into this issue. We need to do this because, for example, my son works in a minimum wage job at €10.50 an hour. His day's pay is €84. If he is sick he has to pay a GP €60. According to this Bill he will not even get the €85 sick pay because sick pay is only at 70%.The reality for all low-paid workers in this State who are on minimum wage is that if they are sick, they will end up with €58 but have to pay €60 to a GP. In other words, the sick pay will not even cover the cost of visiting a GP. That is another barrier. Sinn Féin supports the Bill but the Minister of State has to get rid of the barriers. He does not seem to have a full perspective on how this Bill as it is currently drawn up impacts on low-wage workers. I have given him a concrete example in that regard and I ask him to acknowledge that under the Bill as it is currently constituted, the first day of sick pay amounts to zero. That is just a fact. The ask is for the Minister of State to consider this.
Under Sláintecare, all parties are apparently committed to bringing about free GP care. I ask him to please not go down the road of stating that many people have medical cards. I have the threshold figures before me. I know from the experience of my son that a low-paid worker on the minimum wage who works more than 30 hours a week, does not qualify for a GP visit card or a medical card, so I ask the Minister of State not to go down that road. The issue is that, right now, many people who have to pay €60 to a GP - it is more likely to be €70 in Dublin these days - under the Bill as constituted will end up getting nothing for that day's pay. Our ask is simple. The Government needs to address the issue and make the Bill workable for low-paid workers. It needs to remove the barriers. I hope the Minister of State will accept the amendment.
I understand the general purpose of the amendment and the case put forward by the Senator in the context of his son. Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 aim to alleviate the financial strain on lower-paid employees who do not benefit from having a medical card or a GP visit card. However, while I understand the intent of the amendments, it is important that there are safeguards for employers. With respect, the Senator referred to having a "full perspective". I repeat that is the job I have to do, as a Minister of State, as it is the job of the Tánaiste and the Department bringing forward the Bill. We have to have a full perspective. We are bringing in a new right and statutory entitlement. All present are supportive of that and it is needed. We must also recognise, however, that it must be a system that can work for everybody. Certification is part of that because we have to make sure that everybody can have trust in the system. Medical certification is part of that. It is important that there are safeguards for employers and everybody else. In my view and that of the Department, it is a reasonable requirement that an employee should provide a medical certificate. It is a feature of this benefit that an employee must provide evidence of his or her illness.
In general, people go to a doctor for more than one reason. They do not just go for a medical certificate; they go because they are sick. The Senator should bear that in mind. I accept that there is a cost to visiting a GP and, in some cases, there is an issue with access to GPs. That has been dealt with in different ways. The House and the Government are committed to reducing GP fees and having universal access to healthcare. We are on a journey to that but it is separate from this legislation. The Bill relates to employment law. The cost of GPs and access to GPs is a matter we are dealing with in different ways through the programme for Government. We are committed to that and will do it, but it is separate from employment law. I hope the Senator accepts that.
We believe it is important to have a certification process in respect of this aspect of the Bill. I accept that the Senator is seeking a report and things like that. We will keep this under review. That is what we always do with legislation. We are bringing in this legislation that will benefit everybody who does not already benefit from a sick pay scheme in their workplace. Anyone in employment, whether low paid or high paid, will be entitled to a statutory sick pay scheme going forward. That is a massive addition to our offering and will assist to ensure people are looked after and do not feel they have to go to work when they are sick. It will also make Ireland a more attractive place to grow talent and encourage people to live and work here. I do not agree with the Deputy's repeated remarks in respect of a low-pay economy. Ireland has the second highest minimum wage at European level. I accept that when that is adjusted for the cost of living we are down to fourth or fifth.
We are committed to moving to a living wage, as are some of the Senator's colleagues. A move towards a living wage is provided for in the programme for Government. That will be a positive journey but, again, it is a cost that will affect the creation and protection of jobs. We have to get that balance right, too. It is important to recognise that, in the context of the minimum wage and a commitment to a living wage, we are in a good place in Ireland. We need to focus on reducing the cost of living but that is not just the responsibility of employers. Their job is to make sure they pay and look after staff well, create jobs in the first place and create a good working environment. We, as a Government, along with all parties, have to work on the other parts of this. In general, that is what we do and try to achieve. Part of that is trying to bring down the cost of attending a GP.
It is clear the Minister of State and I will not agree on this. I ask him to acknowledge the example I gave of a minimum wage worker. Will he acknowledge that under the scheme, the first day of sick pay amounts to nothing for these low-paid workers. I have given that example and I ask the Minister of State to acknowledge it.
I did acknowledge the example put forward by the Senator in respect of his son. We have had plenty of discussion on this in both Houses. I ask him to acknowledge that the Government is bringing in a new statutory sick pay scheme. Today, a worker who is sick may not get payment. People go to a doctor for more than one reason. They do not just go there to get a medical certificate; they often go because they are sick and need to see a doctor. The Senator should bear that in mind. Even under the existing illness benefit scheme through the Department of Social Protection, a person needs to have medical certification. That is not new. I totally acknowledge the example put forward by the Senator. I am not denying it whatsoever. I ask him to acknowledge the current situation and that what we are bringing in is a major improvement on that situation, one of which we are all supportive. We must also bear in mind that there must be protections and balance within that. Medical certification is a natural and fair way to give protection to everybody involved in the scheme.
I can see the point Senator Gavan is making but I agree with the Minister of State. Good legislation has to stand on its own two feet. It cannot be the case that we are bringing in legislation but we will have to amend it in a particular way because of something else. It has to stand on its own two feet. What Senator Gavan is proposing is a matter that can be brought forward by a different Department. The fee to see a doctor could be waived or whatever by another Department. This is new employment law legislation and it has to stand the test of time and on its own two feet.
There are winners and losers in every legislation that is brought forward. There may be wins in the Bill for employers. Their staff might stay with them for longer as they have better conditions, for example. However, employers are going to lose as well because there will be a cost to this. It will be a big cost on employment. Every day, employers come to me seeking permits. I have spoken to the Minister today in respect of several people seeking permits. There are many companies that have to pay way above the minimum wage to get people to work. Most people are on the living wage now, rather than the minimum wage. I agree with the Minister of State. This is new legislation and it has to stand the test of time and on its own two feet.
To be clear, Sinn Féin is voting for the Bill. The Minister of State is aware of that. We have worked constructively with him on it. We just happen to believe that, right now, the balance - we have been speaking about balance - is not correct because it does not work for low-paid workers. I have given the Minister of State a clear example to show why it does not work for low-paid workers. We are asking him to consider that balance because if low-paid workers are excluded, there is a fundamental problem and weakness. That is why I am asking him to consider accepting the amendment.
I remind the Senator that what we are starting here is a payment for three days. It kicks in after that. It will move to ten days in the next couple of years, as committed to by my party and the other parties in government. I am not sure what Sinn Féin would do. It has a very different view when it comes to creating and sustaining jobs. I will not go into that today. The Government is clear that there is a commitment to go to ten days. The Senator is taking a one-day view of this, which is not a fair analysis of the legislation. If he wishes to redo his example in the context of the payment for three days, rather than one day, it will be a different story.
That is interesting. Implied in the response of the Minister of State is that it is somehow okay for a low-paid worker not to get any money for the first day of sickness. To be frank, I disagree with him on that. If a person is sick, he or she should be entitled to sick pay. The Minister of State has acknowledged that, for the first day, there will be no sick pay because the person has to fork out for a GP. That is a point of fundamental difference between us. Sinn Féin supports the Bill but we think workers should qualify for sick pay that makes a difference.The reality for my son or anyone else on low pay is that they are down money that day through no fault of their own. The Bill can be improved. That is all.
I hope the Senator’s son is better. I hope he is not still sick. To be very clear on this - there is no sick pay legislation in place at the moment. There is no statutory sick pay scheme. I ask the Senator to perhaps acknowledge that we are improving the situation. It is not the case that there is no financial gain and there is only a loss on the first day. That is not true.
The Senator quoted the prices charged by GPs. The cost involved in attending a GP or obtaining a medical certificate differs throughout the country. I do not agree with the Senator at all that somebody is at a loss on the first day. That is his assertion, and it is reflected in the figures he is putting forward. New new employment legislation has been brought forward, which is a positive development, and it strengthens the hands of employers in respect of the talent war, but it also comes at a cost to them. There is absolutely no doubt about that. The certification process is part of a good scheme. This scheme stands in comparison with those in most countries internationally. We will have one of the best statutory sick pay schemes in the context of the rate of pay, when it kicks in and the roadmap relating to it. I hope the Senator is committing to a similar roadmap in the years ahead as well.
It is clear that this is groundbreaking legislation. The Government is bringing through legislation that will cater for so many people working in the private sector who currently do not have access to any sort of sick pay scheme. It is absolutely crucial that this happens. It is a statutory scheme that will come into place over a number of years. We will increase the period from three to ten days. It is absolutely phenomenal to see that we will be brining this in and that the Bill will be enacted as soon as possible. I know the drive from the Government is to see this legislation in place as soon as possible. It is important to note that it is a support involving both the Government and employers. The latter will be funding up to 70% but the Government is stepping in to support them in providing this. It will be crucial that this works as a partnership going forward. In addition, we are looking out for people who are on the minimum wage. We have already been working to increase the minimum wage. We are working to ensure that people on the minimum wage in the private sector who are not currently receiving sick pay will receive it in the future. It is very important to acknowledge this is groundbreaking legislation.
I would hate for people watching and listening in to think that this is not an extraordinarily positive day. I take Senator Gavan’s points on board. The Minister of State is right that Senator Gavan should acknowledge that we are beginning a new chapter. As Senator Dolan rightly said, this is about access to sick pay. We must strike a balance. Senator Gavan should acknowledge that this is a positive outcome that has been reached by means of a process of consultation and engagement.
We all come to the debate with different viewpoints. As I keep saying, however, the fundamental thing is that we must get the balance right. Senator Burke is right. Many of the people we are talking about are employers who are paying far more than the minimum wage. Whether the Senator accepts that or not, it is the reality. I will bring it to many employers in Cork, where I live-----
I am just speaking from my perspective. I will go to Limerick with the Senator and he will meet the people who are being paid more than the minimum wage. That is the reality. We have today ensured that workers are protected by this. I come from a perspective that is many miles from that of Senator Burke. I may be much closer to Senator Gavan in terms of-----
I would never join the Senator, but I certainly have a similar view on protecting workers rights, as does, to be fair, the Minister of State. That is what we are doing today. We are making provision. That is the fundamental point about this legislation. There is also the Payment of Wages (Amendment) (Tips and Gratuities) Bill later on. It is about ensuring that workers' conditions and living standards are looked after by the Government. This is a positive day. I take Senator Gavan's point on board. The Minister of State can take back that point back to the Department.
I often look at amendments - not necessarily in this case - seeking that reports be made within so many months and ask what such reports will achieve. The Minister of State is committed to a review. I ask myself why we table amendments stating that reports on legislation should be made within three or six months.
I am of the view that the Bill highlights the importance of the Government acting on behalf of workers. It also accentuates the need for a public sector pay deal, because there is power and strength in terms of the cohesiveness of such a deal. Coming out of Covid and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis fuelled by a war that is so wrong, we need to protect public sector workers. That is why, in the context of arriving at a public sector pay deal, I appeal to those on all sides to go back to the table and engage. I heard the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, speaking about this matter at the weekend. I exhort him and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to act. Senator Sherlock and the Labour Party can use their influence in this regard. It is about brining people to the table. We cannot have successful talks through various people appearing on “Morning Ireland” and expressing different points of view. It is about the power of being at the table. That is why I hope the negotiations can resume.
I am not being critical of anybody. I have been a public sector worker all my life. My point is that I recognise the importance of the public sector and of the employees within it and what they bring to the table. I was in this House when former Senator Eoghan Harris used to pillory the public sector week after week. There were very few of us who were in here every day defending the public sector at a time when some individuals were bringing forward proposals to decimate that sector. I do not know if Senator Sherlock recalls that. She probably does.
I am not trying to pit one against the other. I have never been about that. I accept that I am digressing - I apologise for that - but what I want to see happen is the talks resuming because our country and workers need to that collective pay deal to be agreed. We are better served by that than by people having to go off and do individual deals, which serves nobody. That is the point I am making. Please do not say that I am being divisive because I am not.
I do not want to extend this debate because we are going off topic. Any day we mention Eoghan Harris is never a good day as far as I am concerned. The central point I want to make - and I will not fall out with people, well not much anyway - is that there is a weakness in this Bill. Just to be clear: I think this is the third time I am saying it – I support the Bill. I acknowledge this Bill as being a significant step forward. However, there is a weakness in terms of this issue of the first day of sick pay effectively being nothing. I do not see how the Minister of State can argue with my figures. I encourage him to go into detail about that if he wants to. The cost of attending a GP in Limerick is €60. That is the reality. On the basis of the 70% payment provided for in this Bill, my son will come out with €58. That is the reality. The first day sick pay is zero. All I am saying is why not take the opportunity to improve that now. That is all. I am repeating myself. I do not want to labour the point.
In case there is any doubt, the point made by Senator Burke is that this legislation is beginning of a statutory sick pay scheme. It is not and cannot be about access to or the cost of health services. That is a separate discussion. We both agree that there is improvement needed in respect of access and the cost of health services, but that is completely separate from the debate on this legislation. This is the statutory sick pay scheme that is putting a cost on employers who create jobs and want to protect jobs. We have to bear that in mind. We can use all sorts of figures of rates of pay because the Senator’s amendment relates to everybody and every rate of pay. Fewer than 10% of people are on the minimum wage. Of course we want to increase the minimum wage up to a living wage. However, it is fewer than 10% of people, which is my understanding, because there has been a major move during our years in government to reduce the numbers on the minimum wage. The Senator may not like that fact, but it is true. We naturally want to improve the lot of any worker. That is why we want to bring forward this scheme. However, what we are legislating for and the cost of access to health services are separate matters. It is important they are kept separate in the interests of having good legislation. Senator Burke made that point, and I should have acknowledged it. Again, I re-emphasise the point that most people go to a doctor because they are sick. Just bear that in mind. If you are sick, you go to a doctor. The Senator is just focusing only on the certification piece. However, the reason people go is because they are sick and want treatment, help and advice.
Catherine Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Malcolm Byrne, Maria Byrne, Pat Casey, Lisa Chambers, Martin Conway, Ollie Crowe, Emer Currie, Paul Daly, Aidan Davitt, Regina Doherty, Aisling Dolan, Timmy Dooley, Robbie Gallagher, Pippa Hackett, Gerry Horkan, Seán Kyne, Vincent P Martin, John McGahon, Eugene Murphy, Pauline O'Reilly, Mary Seery Kearney, Barry Ward.
Amendments Nos. 9 to 13, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are physical alternatives to amendment No. 9. Amendment No. 13 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 12. The amendments may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 7, line 8, after “day” to insert “equivalent to their full daily rate of pay”.
We have discussed some of this already and but I would like to understand why the Government wants to set the rate of sick pay at 70%. Again, this really impacts on lower paid workers in particular. It just seems low. If we want to talk about balance, 70% does not strike me as the right balance. If someone is sick and they are unable to go to work, they should not be penalised for that. I have given the Minister of State a concrete example of €84.50 a day but we can bring it up to €90 or €100, and 70% is not going to compensate fully for that person’s sickness. We should not always start from the perspective of “Well, they may not really be sick.” We should start from the perspective that the person is sick, they are missing from work and they should not be penalised for that because it is not their fault. We have heard a lot about balance and I agree with the Minister of State that we need to get the balance right, but the balance should not be 70%. People should get a full day’s pay if they are sick. To me, that is the fairest solution and the correct balance, particularly when we are starting off with a very small number of days, just three days to begin with.
The reality at present is that workers will make a choice to go to work sick. This Bill should be and can be more effective. I do not see the rationale for the 70% figure or where it comes from. I will listen to the Minister of State's response.
There is no doubt this Bill is ground-breaking in terms of providing all workers in this country, once they have served 13 weeks, with a right to paid sick leave. We in the Labour Party very much welcome that, and the Minister of State earlier acknowledged the Bill we put forward in September 2020 to give a right to all workers with regard to paid sick leave. When we look at this, we have to remember who in this country has an occupational sick pay scheme and who does not.The more a worker earns the greater the probability of him or her having an occupational sick pay scheme and the less one earns the greater the probability that one is reliant on the State's illness benefit system. This Bill is about low-paid workers and middle-income workers, but, in particular, low-paid workers.
I want to speak to amendments Nos. 15, 17 and 18, and to support amendment No. 14 as well because it is an alternative to amendment No. 15.
I have looked at the debate in the Dáil about the Government's rejection of the payment of a worker's full rate and we have to question that. Workers on low pay do not have spare capacity. They cannot afford to not work because of the bills they have to pay. If they are only getting 70% of what they would typically expect to earn, there is an issue about providing them with the assurance and comfort of knowing that they will not be out of pocket when they fall sick. They will be out of pocket under the proposals in this Bill because the maximum payment is 70%. We believe that is wrong. It needs to be at a full-day's pay rate. As I said earlier, no worker wants to be sick. Workers want to get on with their work. They want to be able to pay their bills and know that they can pay their bills as opposed to having to take a cut in income because they are sick.
In section 7, the maximum daily amount has a number of exceptions or allowances. There is an allowance regarding board and lodgings. I do not believe that is fair. They are either to get their daily rate of pay or not, but to introduce an allowance in respect of board and lodgings is wrong.
That brings me to amendment No. 17. I am reluctantly bringing forward this amendment in the knowledge that the Minister of State will reject our amendments to ensure that workers will get their full daily rate. It is to ask that, when he is introducing the maximum rate of pay, the Minister of State will also introduce a minimum rate of pay. I listened to the Minister of State's comments earlier where the talked about the Minister taking a full perspective on this Bill. Beyond labour legislation, the Minister is ignoring what is happening in the health system at present because there is not timely access to GPs in this country for many people. There may be people in this Chamber who can pick up the phone to their GP and get an appointment within a few hours but there are many workers out there, particularly if they are new to this country or if they are new to a particular area, who cannot get a GP appointment within a day or two days. One could be waiting well over a week.
Senator Gavan already touched on affordability. The reality is minimum wage workers will not get enough in sick leave benefit to cover the cost of going to the doctor. Amendment No. 6 was an eminently sensible amendment and it is unfortunate that the Government has ruled it out of order. I suppose what is particularly striking is that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation, recognised that there is an issue with timely access and affordability of GPs. In an ideal world we would have certification on the first day of illness, if GP visits were free and one was able to get them in a timely fashion, but that is not the reality in this country. There was a strong cross-party recommendation from the committee - I note Senator Ollie Crowe was here today - that an allowance would have to be put in place for low-paid workers and the Government has ignored that recommendation in bringing this Bill before the House. Because the Government has ignored that cross-party recommendation, I am asking the Minister to State to introduce a minimum rate of pay to ensure that any worker will at least be able to afford the cost of going to the doctor from the first day of illness.
To go back to my original point, this Bill has to work for all workers but it particularly has to work for low-paid workers because they are the ones who do not have occupational sick pay within their workplaces. We need to ensure that this Bill works for them.
As Senator Sherlock said, this has to work for all workers. It has to work for employers as well. We have to be fair to employers as well. This is, as has been said, groundbreaking legislation.
I suppose everything is relative. Whether one is on a lower wage or a middle-income wage, one's outgoings will be relative to what one's income will be. If somebody is out sick, whether he or she is in the middle-income bracket or not, he or she cannot afford to be out of work either.
When this legislation is passed, and when it is enacted and up and running, we do not know where it will finish. In small businesses, when somebody is out sick they have got to get cover. Larger businesses can operate to some degree because they have more employees but if one has a small business with four or five employees and one person is out sick for whatever reason, that business more than likely has to get cover.
I had asked on Second Stage that we would look at surveys to see how many people in the public service are out sick because they are allowed sick days and whether everyone working in the public service take all of their sick days. In the private sector, what is the number of people who are out sick or are there statistics to show that people are going to work when they are sick? In the latter case, we know from the meat industry that that happens. We should have had some of those findings before being able to have a real overview of this legislation. In any event, we are passing this legislation without that knowledge now.
There will be a new industry providing locums, as is the case with doctors and dentists. This will apply where, for instance, one has a restaurant or a bar. People will work in one bar today and in another bar the next day, or they will work in one restaurant today and a different restaurant next week. That is the business they will be in. They will be covering for people who are out sick because, as I said, if one has a small business and one gets a phone call on Monday morning to say a person is not coming in because he or she is sick, it will throw the whole business into disarray, particularly given it is nearly impossible to get anybody at present. I can see a new locum industry growing from this.
We have to bear with the legislation that the Minister of State is bringing forward to see how it will pan out on the ground. That is my view on it.
This legislation is groundbreaking, as has been said frequently. It is about supporting people who cannot afford to be sick at present. We have heard personal examples of that.
I have sympathy for the Minister of State in this scenario. It is easy to talk about employers all in the one bracket but we are talking about employers who, in this scenario, will have to pay 70% and then may also have to find replacement workers at 100%. They are already working in very difficult situations, increasingly so, with wage increases, energy costs and high business costs at present. It is about getting the balance right.
We have received some emails about a rebate scheme for employers and helping them. I believe there is something in section 10 around inability to pay.My question is on what supports there could be for employers. We have heard from the likes of the Vintners' Federation of Ireland and other small businesses.