Businesses are being caught in the middle between staff who are refusing to be vaccinated against Covid-19 and others who are refusing to work alongside those who have not received a vaccine, an Oireachtas committee has been told.
Isme, which represents small and medium businesses, said there was “a disgraceful lack of clarity concerning the rights of employers (and employees) to know the vaccination status of co-workers returning to the workplace”.
It also said the Government’s Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) scheme was “acting as a significant brake” people returning to work in areas such as agriculture, hospitality, grooming and accommodation. It said the payment “should be tapered more rapidly”.
However, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) argued that the decision on when and how to withdraw the payment "must be based on concrete evidence and not influenced by claims from a handful of employers, amplified by the media, that workers do not want to return to their jobs" because of the benefits they are receiving.
Ictu said it “cannot and will not stand over cuts to the income supports for laid off workers locked out of their employment” by pandemic restrictions.
In a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment ahead of a hearing on Wednesday, Isme warns that “a minority of cynical members of the legal profession” would attempt to exploit the lack of clarity around the issue of the vaccination of staff in the workplace if the matter was not addressed by Government.
“We already have multiple queries from member companies concerning staff who have advised their employer and their colleagues that they will not accept vaccination,” it said.
“At the same time, many employees have advised these employers that it’s a ‘them or us’ situation; i.e. staff will refuse to work beside unvaccinated colleagues.
"As we advised the department, this situation is unfairly exposing employers to the potential of enforcement action by either the Health and Safety Authority (in the absence of adequate measures) or the Workplace Relations Commission (in the enforcement of measures)."
Isme said it was clear from some advertising by certain solicitors’ firms that “they are prepared to test this absence of clarity in the courts”.
“This situation is manifestly unfair,” it said.
Isme said that while there had been “remarkably few insolvencies to date” arising from the pandemic, this number was set to rise quickly.
It urged that a reduced 9 per cent Vat rate should be maintained indefinitely for those it applied to “and the higher rate should permanently revert to its historic rate” of 21 per cent.
It also argued that if staff in the private sector took as many sick days as those in parts of the public sector the Government’s payment scheme for workers who fell ill would “be unaffordable for many employers”.
In its submission, Ictu told the committee the PUP had “proved integral to maintaining workers’ income and, hence, consumer demand and social solidarity throughout the public health emergency”.
It said when the economy was partially re-opened last summer, 400,000 workers “willingly closed their pandemic unemployment payment claim and returned to work.
“Workers have left the country, left sectors and left the workforce. Furthermore, our per-capita sectoral unemployment is on a par with other countries that do not have a pandemic unemployment payment- equivalent payment,” it said.