On 7 September, the Irish Government published updated guidance on returning to work as restrictions are gradually eased.
As announced on 31 August, workplaces will be permitted to begin a phased return to work from 20 September for specific business requirements. From 22 October, the requirement to work from home will be removed. Currently, the guidance is still to work from home unless necessary to attend in person.
What will change on 20 September?
From 20 September, employers may begin a phased return to work for some employees for 'specific business requirements'. The guidance does not define specific business requirements, but states that the interpretation of the guidance will depend on the specific circumstances of the employer's workplace and the results of consultations with their staff.
Any return is to be 'cautious and careful' and is to be in accordance with the Work Safely Protocol and the associated checklist below. This means that measures such as physical distancing, enhanced hand hygiene, mask wearing, and improved ventilation will still be required within workplaces. Measures such as not requiring staff to attend full time, the use of staggered arrangements, or taking a flexible approach to working hours are to be taken into account. The HSA have previously produced a number of checklists and templates to assist employers with these measures.
There is a specific checklist on returning to the office which has been drafted in accordance with the Work Safely Protocol. Employers should work with their Lead Worker Representative(s) to implement all practical and necessary steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 within the workplace.
What will change from 22 October?
From 22 October, provided that the pre-conditions for doing so are met, the majority of further statutory restrictions relating to COVID-19 will be removed. This includes the requirement to work from home.
However, the guidance stresses that returning to work after this date should be on a 'phased and cautious basis appropriate to each sector'. In advance of this date, the Government will consult with employers and trade union representatives through the Labour Employer Economic Forum (LEEF) on guidance required from 22 October onward.
The guidance mentions that the Government will continue to implement Making Remote Work, the strategy for ensuring remote working is a permanent feature of the Irish workplace.
What should employers be doing now?
Employers should begin consulting with their staff and considering their business needs in advance of 20 September. With the interpretation of what constitutes a specific business requirement being left undefined, it is important that employers establish what their specific business requirements are. Companies should also ensure that they take into account any sector specific guidance that may be relevant to their business.
Employers should ensure that they begin working with their Lead Worker Representative to prepare the workplace for the return of workers. If employers do not yet have a Lead Worker Representative, one should be appointed as a priority in line with the Work Safely Protocol.
It is important that companies continue to closely follow the guidance that has been released by the Government. There have been over 41,000 inspections by bodies such as the Workplace Relations Commission to monitor compliance with the Work Safely Protocol and these inspections routinely engage with both management and workers as part of the process.
Whilst many employers will already have undertaken workplace risk assessments during the “work from home” phase (for employees who needed to attend the workplace) it would be prudent to revisit those assessments as more or all employees return on a staggered basis.
Employers should begin consultations and planning to best prepare for the upcoming changes and for a return to the workplace.