There is growing alarm within the Government that the cost of extra pay or leave for public sector workers as a reward for their service during the pandemic will run to several hundred million euro, wiping out much of the available resources in the forthcoming budget.
A Labour Court recommendation on Wednesday said the Health Service Executive had estimated that a claim for 10 days' additional leave by unions for healthcare workers could cost at least €377 million.
There are concerns among Government officials that other groups of State employees including some civil servants and gardaí may also look for similar benefits. Workers at Dublin Bus, Irish Rail and Bus Éireann – part of the State-owned CIÉ group – who are represented by the National Bus and Rail Union have also sought 10 additional days leave for "donning the green jersey" and keeping buses and trains operational during the pandemic.
The broader public service trade union movement has not lodged any claims.
In their submission to the Labour Court, the health unions said workers’ expectations had been raised by comments by Ministers.
The submission included a quote from Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who said the Government would give active consideration to compensation claims. It also pointed to a comment by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly who said: "I want to see something done. Yeah, absolutely, I really do."
On Tuesday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil it was his "strong view" that bonus payments or extra leave should not be limited to frontline workers in the health service.
"I have seen the enormous work done by civil servants in the Department of Social Protection making sure people got their pandemic unemployment payment . . . quickly. I know of the work staff in Revenue did making sure businesses got their employment wage subsidy scheme payments and staff in my department did making sure businesses got the assistance they needed.
“Too often, we make this distinction between frontline workers and non-frontline workers, which does not fully appreciate that there is nothing you can do as a frontline worker if it were not for all of the people behind you,” Mr Varadkar said.
Sources in the Department of Finance and Department of Public Expenditure believe that, if met in full, the requests for special payments or leave could take up a huge proportion of the cash available on budget day. The Minister for Public Expenditure, Michael McGrath, has suggested he will have about €1 billion for new spending.
The Government also faces pressure to cover all the costs of potentially thousands of people affected by the defective building material mica.
Mr McGrath told the Dáil on Wednesday there could be a significantly improved scheme to compensate householders in the coming weeks.
The concern at the potential extra costs comes as the chair of the Government's budget watchdog, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, told a Dáil committee existing budgetary plans were "at the limit of what is prudent".
Sebastian Barnes was critical of plans to increase current spending, raise capital spending and cut taxes simultaneously.
“By expanding all areas at once, the Government is effectively evading difficult choices and slowing the return of debt ratios to safer levels,” he said.
“A more prudent approach would be to limit current spending to a slower pace of increase or to avoid plans to reduce the tax base at the same time as a ramp-up in public investment spending is planned,” Mr Barnes said.