The Labour Party has introduced the Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020.
The aim of the Bill is to provide for an entitlement for employees to paid leave during periods of illness or injury and to amend the entitlement to leave on grounds of force majeure for parents whose children are unable to attend school or a pre-school service by reason of Covid-19 measures.
Rather surprisingly, Ireland is one only five EU countries without an actual legal right to sick pay. So, in that sense at least we are way behind the European curve. An illness benefit scheme is administered by the Department of Social Protection, but this is not the same thing as an actual right to sick pay.
So, if you are out sick because of Covid, or if you are employed and your child has to stay home from school and you cannot access or organise care for them, then the chances are you will be out of pocket to a fairly considerably degree.
This being far from ideal, it is only right then that the hardships created by these situations be addressed in ‘a fair and sustainable manner,’ to use that terrible political phrase.
The Bill itself was debated on Wednesday and received broad enough support from opposition parties including Sinn Fein, Social Democrats and Solidarity/People Before Profit.
The government, in true return to form for Micheál Martin decided to subject the proposals contained within the Bill to a six month “review” so that employer groups and ‘stakeholders’ can engage in consultation. At this stage he could probably play a tune to the sound of a can being kicked down the road.
In supporting the intentions of the Bill however, Sinn Fein and the far-left groupings could not resist taking a few swipes at the political brass neck of the Labour Party.
In one fairly withering intervention, Brid Smith even made the point that The Labour Party must be hoping “that the working class and the trade union movement will have a bout of collective amnesia.”
“It was the Labour Party and a Labour Minister (Joan Burton) that decided in its last turn in government that workers should be forced to wait six days before they received any sick pay from the State. The period without State benefit was extended from three to six days with no compulsion on employers to fill the gap. One would wonder what the party of Connolly thought workers were supposed to do for six days with no income.”
For other TD’s like Mattie McGrath, there was a sense that the Bill, while well intentioned was not grounded in economic reality:
“As an employer myself, which I want to declare, I have mixed feelings about it. What is happening in the country is sickening, with the pandemic and special advisers, including advisers for Ministers of State. They are oblivious to what is going on in the real world. A small businessman looks after staff, in the main, including with sick pay, and the staff look after the business. Small business people cannot afford the scheme in this Bill.”
This view was echoed by his colleagues, the Healy-Rae brothers. For Danny, the Labour Party Bill is “a grand, popular, populist idea.” Danny went on to say that he does “not begrudge employees anything that we can give them because they deserve as much as we can provide. But where will the money come from.”
For Michael Healy-Rae, the Bill was “a complete farce.”
The Cork South-West TD Michael Collins said that it was “a bit rich of the Labour Party to put this forward today, when it absolutely destroyed women’s pensions.”
Alan Kelly of course was having none of this:
“I regret some of the political commentary from a few Independents…of the rural variety who effectively said they do not believe workers should have statutory sick pay. Imagine not believing workers should have statutory sick pay or believing that a parent with a child in a school with a case of Covid should not get time off to look after that child. Imagine going back to one’s constituents and saying that is what one believes. That is exactly what a number of rural Independent Deputies said today, and I will remind them of that forever.”
The problem there is that none of the rural deputies said anything of the kind. They simply raised legitimate concerns around how the Bill might impose severe financial obligations on employers who are already struggling to keep the lights on. No employers. No jobs.
But there is no reason why the idea of supporting workers sick pay entitlements and supporting employers should be an either/or option. Both can be done effectively and fairly as the majority of the EU countries have shown. It is about time we too found a way to do both.