In this, our third bulletin on employment matters related to coronavirus (COVID-19), we focus on the news just announced that the rules on illness benefit will be amended, which will include enabling employees to benefit from state illness benefit earlier than would be the case in normal circumstances. 

The announcement follows a statement issued by the government on Thursday last week (5 March 2020), following meetings with employer and trade union representatives, in which it agreed that all employees who comply with medical advice to self-isolate should receive income support when doing so.

The usual Illness Benefit rules

While there is no statutory obligation on an employer in Ireland to pay sick pay, many employers do so pursuant to the terms of an employee's contract, established custom and practice, on a discretionary basis or pursuant to a sick leave policy. The amount paid by the company is normally reduced by the amount of illness benefit receivable by the employee. Illness benefit is available to the employee from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection subject to the employee satisfying certain PRSI conditions. No payment is made for the first 6 days of illness, which are known as waiting days. The highest rate usually applicable is €203 per week.  

COVID-19 Illness Benefit rules

Following consideration by the Cabinet Subcommittee on COVID-19 it has been announced that emergency legislation will be introduced in the Dáil next week which will see:

  • Illness Benefit rise from €203 per week to €305
  • Illness Benefit being available from the first day of illness rather than after 6 days
  • Illness Benefit being available to the self-employed
  • The removal of the requirement for a minimum number of PRSI contributions

The aim is that the new arrangements will be backdated to apply from Monday 9 March 2020. Employees who wish to benefit from the new arrangement will however have to be medically certified as absent.

The Government said that (in order to contain the transmission of COVID-19), the increase in the personal rate of illness benefit will be for a maximum period of two weeks of medically certified self-isolation, or for the duration of a person's medically certified absence from work due to a COVID-19 diagnosis.

The above measures will only apply in respect of absences related to COVID-19, i.e. if an employee is on sick leave for a reason unrelated to COVID-19, the usual illness benefit rules will apply.

What steps should employers take?

Employers should consider their policy on absences related to COVID-19 in light of this forthcoming emergency legislation. Many employers may decide to "top up" illness benefit in respect of absences relating to medically certified self-isolation, in addition to absences in respect of a COVID-19 diagnosis. If so, employers should follow normal sick leave procedures which would include requiring a medical certificate from the employee confirming the nature of the absence; i.e. whether it is as a result of a diagnosis of COVID-19 or a medically certified period of self-isolation. If an employer is providing company sick pay, it should be clear that this will be reduced by the illness benefit receivable by the employee (irrespective of whether they apply for it) and that any abuse of the company sick pay policy will be dealt with as a disciplinary matter.

The Government is urging employers to support national public health objectives by "topping up" the illness benefit for employees who cannot attend work due to COVID-19 illness or self-isolation.

Guidance published yesterday outlines how this may be achieved.

The matter of employee pay and managing COVID-19 is continuously evolving and will need to be kept under review by employers, particularly if the public health situation deteriorates over the coming weeks as has been predicted.

We will provide further information on the emergency illness benefit arrangements once the emerging legislation is enacted.

Our previous alerters on this topic may be accessed here and here.