‘I’m embarrassed’: Teachers react to unions’ call to be part of Covid bonus talks

Well-meaning Government initiative risks descending into an unseemly free-for-all

When teachers’ unions announced they were joining the queue of frontline professionals seeking access to talks over Covid-19 bonuses, they expected a backlash – just not from their own members.

“Who asked our union to look for a bonus pandemic payment? How many emails and texts? I haven’t heard even one member,” said one teacher. “What on earth is going on here?”

Another local teachers’ union representative said: “I’d be embarrassed to put ourselves in the same category as health professionals . . . No way should we be seeking to get the same reward.”

School principals, too, said it was not a matter of discussion or debate in staffrooms.


“As a school principal and member of one of these unions, I have not heard a single solitary teacher or school leader colleague even suggest this? Seldom things really irritate me, but this takes the biscuit!” one said.

The response shows how a well-meaning Government initiative – to recognise the contribution of frontline workers during the pandemic – risks snowballing into a unseemly free-for-all between civil servants, public sector workers, teachers and retail workers.

Growing alarm

The potential for ballooning costs is also a source of growing alarm. The Government estimates that the cost of giving extra leave days across the health sector would be about €377 million, or €1 billion if applied across the public sector.

Teachers’ unions were keen to point out that they were not “demanding” bonus payments and have not lodged any claims. Rather, if there are discussions around rewarding workers, they feel they should be at the table. They add that they were simply responding to smoke signals from the Government that the bonus could apply outside the health sector.

"Leo Varadkar said last week that it shouldn't be limited to health workers," said one union source. "He highlighted the work of civil servants making sure people got pandemic unemployment payments. So, if that's what we're talking about, then, yes, we should be at the table."

The debate cuts across another contentious question: what exactly is a “frontline” worker?

For many it’s a health professional who had to don personal protective equipment; for others, it includes retail workers who kept shelves stacked during the darkest days of the pandemic. Teachers’ unions feel their members are also legitimate frontline workers.

“They’re working in crowded classrooms and making huge efforts to keep schools open . . . it’s only right that they should be considered,” said one.

The fact that schools closed for a considerable time, however, has fuelled outrage among some that taxpayers could end up footing the bill for teachers’ bonuses or bank holidays.


The sense of grievance is especially strong among parents of special needs pupils, who feel let down that special schools closed at a time when they remained open across Europe.

“Their refusal to reopen the schools in early 2021 was highly damaging to vulnerable pupils,” one campaigner said. “I think there would be outrage if the Government gives in to these demands.”

At Government level, there is now growing awareness that the idea of Covid bonuses is mushrooming into an divisive issue. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar acknowledged as much when he spoke to reporters this week.

“It’s not just people who were working in the public sector, it’s also people who are volunteering as well . . . It is difficult, but we want to get it right.”