Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Government is exploring a combination of measures - including payments and time off work - to mark the contribution of front-line workers during the pandemic.
Speaking in New York Mr Martin suggested that retail workers are to be included in efforts to reward those on the front-line of Covid-19.
It comes after Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil it was is “strong view” that bonus payments or extra leave should not be limited to health workers.
He highlighted the work of civil servants making sure people got pandemic unemployment payments and others.
The consideration of measures to reward people for the work they did during the pandemic comes as the Government continues to develop next month’s Budget.
Mr Martin was asked if there should be a reward across the board for public servants and how the Government would find the money to pay for it.
He said the Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has been engaging with “the partners and unions on this issue”
“We want to reflect the contribution that people have made during an Covid-19 particularly frontline workers.
“And those frontline workers have been in many sectors, not least in retail, for example, right from the beginning and commencement of the pandemic.”
Mr Martin said: “it will be challenging, but that is something that we are working towards energetically and proactively.”
On whether it would be a monetary reward Mr Martin said: “I’m not going to get into specifics, we’re going to have further engagements with the sectors, and it could be a combination of approaches.”
Asked what this would mean he said: “I’m not going to go through the actual negotiations right now”.
However, he suggested it could be a combination of measures - monetary or time in lieu.
Earlier Mr McGrath warned the cost of extra pay or leave across the public sector as a reward for service during the pandemic could top €1 billio
He said there is a “significant cost” associated with the claim lodged at the Labour Court by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation and the other health worker unions for 10 days leave across the health services.
Sources in the Departments of Finance and 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.
Mr McGrath said that would be a minimum cost of €377 million. “Given that you would almost certainly have to involve a level of overtime and agency staff to provide the necessary cover the costs would almost certainly exceed €500 million.
“And if you were to provide the same 10 days leave across the full public service the cost would exceed €1 billion,” he said during Dáil question time on Thursday.
Mr McGrath told Independent TD Michael Collins, Solidarity TD Mick Barry and Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart that what the Government does to address the issue of a pandemic bonus "has to be done in fair and inclusive way".
He said the emphasis had been placed on healthcare workers which was justifiable. But “there are many others across the public service who did great work over this time – the prison service, members of the gardaí, Defence Forces, Department of Social Protection, Revenue Commissioners, all of whom continued to work along with many others in the public sector.”
He said that in the private sector shop workers kept the show on the road during the darkest days of Covid-19, our cleaners – the people who collected our refuse during this period.
The Minister pledged to bring the issue to a conclusion “in the coming weeks” but he would not commit to a specific deadline.
“I’m not committing to a particular date. I’m saying in the coming weeks and we need to get it right.”
Mr McGrath said “we don’t want to allow this to drag on . We have a clear recommendation from the Labour Court which we intend to abide by”.
He added that “we need to engage with the private sector because there are many people across the private who really kept the show on the road and looked after us when that was needed. We need to take all of that into account.”
He added that “we are examining the approach in other countries. We need to be fair.”
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.
Varadkar and Kelly
Later Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that dealing with the question of a pandemic bonus or extra leave “does not need to be a budget-day decision, but it might be”.
He was responding to Labour leader Alan Kelly who asked if workers’ efforts would be recognised in the budget?
Mr Varadkar replied that “it would be better if it fell into this financial year rather than next year, but that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that it is done.”
He was unsure how it would be done and there were many contradictory stories about “what is or is not in the budget”.
But he added that “we will engage with the unions and worker representatives around recognition bonuses for staff who did the extra mile, went out of their way during the pandemic”.
Mr Kelly reminded the Tánaiste of what happened in 2020 at the start of the pandemic when “we turned to our frontline workers to keep public services running and essential retail open”.
He said that “nurses were turning up for work in hospitals with little or no personal protective equipment . . . They were separated from their families and their children. Isolating themselves” to protect their families from the virus.
Mr Varadkar confirmed that Ireland’s response would be broader than the “very narrow basis” on which some countries paid a recognition bonus, which was limited to healthcare workers.