‘Unclear’ if vaccinated staff can get welfare when self-isolating, Isme says

Businesses group receiving queries on how to handle employees’ vaccine status

Vaccinated and unvaccinated workers may have different entitlement rights to a Covid-19 welfare benefit if they have to stay away from work, according to the small and medium-sized businesses group Isme.

Close contacts of people who have been diagnosed as having Covid-19, and who have to stay at home from work and self-isolate, can apply for a Covid enhanced illness benefit of €350 a week.

According to public health advice, people who are not vaccinated and who have come into close contact with someone with Covid-19, should self-isolate.

However, vaccinated people who do not show any symptoms of Covid are not being asked to self-isolate if they have been a close contact of someone with the illness.

Because of this, according to an internal note on the issue prepared by Isme: “It is unclear as to whether a vaccinated employee is able to avail of the enhanced illness benefit if they are restricting [their] movement and vaccinated, as that is outside public health guidance.”

The note was prepared by the organisation because it is receiving queries from member businesses about how to handle their employees’ vaccine status.

According to advice from the Data Protection Commissioner, most employers are not entitled to ask their employees about their vaccination status, or process any information as to their employees’ vaccination status.

Safe

“We have a potential situation where if an employee notifies an employer that they are a close contact, the employer can only ask, ‘are you safe to be in the workplace’,” the Isme note states.

“If the employee responds that they are, the employer will have to allow them into the workplace or potentially face a payment of wages claim – unless they are willing to pay for the time out of the workplace.”

Employers have safety obligations towards their employees, but are restricted in terms of protecting them from Covid-19 because of the data protection advice, Isme has said.

Isme chief executive Neil McDonnell claimed one law, on data protection, exposes employers to potential fines, while another, on health and safety, exposes them to a potential criminal offence.

According to the internal note, the restriction on asking an employee about his or her vaccination status means an employer has to allow an employee into the workplace with no documentary evidence that they are complying with HSE guidelines.

However, compliance with public health advice is an employer responsibility.

Remote working

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar is to publish a report on Friday that will feed into the proposal that workers would have a statutory right to apply for remote working.

In its submission to the consultancy process, the employers group Ibec argued that, while many companies wanted to offer remote working, legislating to create the right to apply for it was “premature and disproportionate”.

However, it is understood many employee submissions to the consultation process were in favour of the proposed law.

Meanwhile, asked for a comment on the enhanced illness benefit issue, the Department of Social Protection said: “Last week, the department issued enhanced illness benefit payments to some 1,832 people.”

The benefit was paid when a person was diagnosed with Covid-19 or where a person was self-isolating due to being a probable source of infection.

“The medical certification required for the purposed of illness benefit or enhanced illness benefit is a matter for the relevant GP,” it said.

Employees and self-employed people are entitled to claim the enhanced illness benefit payment, the department added.