Grounds for refusing remote working will be key issue in new law, unions say

Fears voiced that remote work could become ‘feminised’; employers urged to be cautious

Ictu secretary Patricia King said it was important employers not rush workers back to the workplace, given the fact legislation had yet to be enacted. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ictu secretary Patricia King said it was important employers not rush workers back to the workplace, given the fact legislation had yet to be enacted. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

A crucial issue in legislation on remote working coming to Cabinet on Tuesday would be the reasons employers would be permitted to refuse requests, union representatives have said.

There were also “real concerns” about ensuring remote working did not become “gendered”, with more women than men seeking it, with potential adverse impact on women’s careers, pay and pensions, said Laura Bambrick, head of social policy of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu).

She was speaking following a meeting between employers’ and workers’ representatives with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on Monday.

Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar will bring the heads of the Bill to Cabinet on Tuesday. If enacted, it will enshrine the right for workers to request working from home.

It will set out the rights of employees to request remote working and the circumstances in which their employer can refuse.

If the employee is unhappy with the decision they can appeal to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), which can make a binding adjudication or impose fines in certain circumstances.  There is no cost for taking an appeal. *

Ms Bambrick said the criteria for refusing a worker’s request for remote working would be carefully studied.

No rush

Ictu secretary Patricia King said it was important employers not rush workers back to the workplace, given the fact legislation had yet to be enacted.

“With the sudden ending of the work from home guidance and the time lag in workers’ remote-working rights coming into force, [Ictu] stressed the importance of employers recognising there will be practical reasons and, for some workers, health grounds why a speedy return to the office is not always going to be possible and that reasonable accommodations must be made.”

Business and employers organisation Ibec has welcomed government support for a “phased return to the workplace over the coming weeks”, adding “business will continue to work to ensure that this is done safely”.

Ms Bambrick said measures would have to be included to ensure remote working did not adversely affect a worker’s career. This could particularly affect women, she said.

“There has been no gendered division around remote working during the pandemic. Women and men were forced into it and it quickly became clear it could be done by all,” she said.

There were, however, growing concerns remote working could become “feminised” and if that happened it would get “devalued very, very quickly”.

It was also important remote working was not promoted as a way to “work around” the provision of good quality public services, like childcare, she said.

‘Step back’

Síobhra Rush, head of legal firm Lewis Silkin in Dublin and an expert in employment law, said: “I would be very slow, if I was an employer, to issue a blanket ‘come back to work’ request today. They need to follow the back-to work protocol, which have not been updated, and there is still guidance about wearing masks and social distancing.”

She advised employers to “take a step back” and open a dialogue with staff “or else they will lose people”.

Ms Rush said many multinationals were telling their employees that they would not be expected back in the office until March or April at the earliest.

She said employers had a duty to “act reasonably” even if they have a legal entitlement to request that employees return to the office.

Another 3,692 PCR-confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported in the State on Monday, while 4,347 more people registered a positive antigen test through the HSE portal.

As of 8am on Monday, there were 885 Covid-19 patients hospitalised in the State, an increase of 40 on Sunday. A total of 76 patients were in ICU.

In Northern Ireland, one further person who had previously tested positive recently for Covid-19 has died, the North’s Department of Health said on Monday, while another 3,932 confirmed cases of the virus were notified.

* This article was amended on January 25th, 2022.