I heard some of the earlier contributions and will discuss them with my colleagues. I agree with Deputy Harkin that the Bill deals with an important issue. We might have different views on the speed at which we can change but most Members are in favour of bringing in measures in this space, which is a positive move. I thank the Labour Party for leading this debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss it in the House. The Government welcomes the introduction of this important issue for future deliberation in the House.
The past seven months have been a challenging time for everyone. We all have been adjusting to the new realities that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought in its wake. Extraordinary steps have been taken in our efforts to suppress the virus. We have been asked to socially distance and to wear face masks in circumstances where it is not possible to stay 2 m apart. The importance of washing our hands has been stressed and, most important, we have been told to socially isolate if we display the symptoms of the virus. Employers have been asked to support remote working where possible, as well as to adjust the physical environment of workplaces and associated work practices in order that essential work can continue in a safe manner. No one should go to work if they are feeling sick or displaying Covid symptoms. To do so would be harmful to themselves, the people with whom they come in contact and detrimental to our economy and wider society.
Ireland does not have a statutory sick pay scheme in place, that is, a scheme whereby all employers must by law pay employees who are unable to work because of an illness. An illness benefit scheme is administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This scheme was temporarily enhanced in the circumstances presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal is to encourage people not to go work when they should be in isolation simply because they cannot afford to lose out on wages. The scheme ensures payment from the first day of illness, allowing employees to comply with medical advice to self-isolate to mitigate the spread of the virus. While I appreciate that the illness benefit scheme does not necessarily cover entire salaries of workers affected by the Covid-19 public health measures, I am thankful many employees enjoy contractual entitlements affording them sick pay entitlements.
However, as my colleagues have signposted, the proposal to introduce a statutory sick pay entitlement is not quite as straightforward as the Bill suggests. While most businesses have reopened and are trading, many are faced with the prospect of a slow recovery in domestic consumer demand and decreased international demand, together with the overhang of costs and losses that arose during the past seven months. The Department is engaging with these businesses daily, as are many Members. They face many pressures. The majority of those businesses would accept positive change at the right time in this space. It is about managing, however, what we have in front of us.
Government measures have been introduced to support people, households, workers and businesses impacted by Covid-19. This has included unprecedented levels of emergency income support, measures for households and liquidity support measures for enterprises.
These measures have played a significant role in supporting the economy and society.
However, businesses continue to require help to stabilise, reboot and deal with the ongoing challenges they will have to face coming into the winter. Business owners face a variety of fixed costs which they may struggle to meet due to ongoing public health restrictions. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we do not hastily introduce new costs on business that would compromise the continued viability and solvency of the thousands of microenterprises and small businesses across the country that are trying to get back on their feet. This includes coffee shops, small retailers, travel and tourism operators, those involved in the leisure and play sectors, including kids' leisure and play centres, the entertainment sectors and the pubs that have suffered dramatic and catastrophic reductions in revenues. We are all very familiar with their stories. They are not just businesses, small, micro or large, but also employers. They give people the opportunity to go to work, and everybody benefits from businesses doing well. This also helps to give us the tax revenues we need to provide and upgrade services. It is a full circle. It is a matter of trying to make sure we support the employees, the businesses and those who are at home. That is the balance we have tried to achieve with the supports that have been announced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
From the start of the pandemic, many employers have taken the initiative, in line with subsequent requests from the Government, to be as flexible as possible in allowing staff to manage their family responsibilities and to protect themselves. Employers have a general duty of care towards their workers, and that care is often expressed in the form of negotiation, compromise and flexibility. Quite a good rapport has been developed in that respect, and I think most feedback will show that this is happening in a positive way and that those conversations have been had individually in many cases and directly with workforces as well. In the majority of cases, in fairness, everybody has acted responsibly, and that is a compliment to all involved.
The Government has been encouraging any employees coming into contact with the virus, even indirectly, to follow the guidelines, self-isolate and engage with their employers in the first instance with a view to exploring all options available to enable them to self-isolate and then return to work when it is safe for them to do so. We continue to encourage all employers to be as flexible and supportive as possible with a view to maintaining good employment relations over the long term.
While employees are obliged to work as needed and in line with the terms and conditions of their employment contract, employers also have a duty of care to their workers in ensuring a safe and healthy workplace. Employers do not want staff arriving into the workplace when they are sick, which would put at risk not only themselves and other employees but the wider business. However, the introduction of a statutory requirement on all employers to pay up to six weeks of sick leave per annum would be a very large burden on microenterprises and small enterprises. For this reason, the Government believes a period of consultation is essential before considering any policies and legal obligations in this area.
In principle, the Government sees many benefits associated with the introduction of statutory sick pay. However, we need to identify the specific problem or challenge that the absence of such an entitlement is creating and the most efficient and fair manner of addressing that challenge. This will require cross-departmental co-operation.
We will need to carry out research into the extent and the exact nature of the problems identified in the Bill. We will need to understand the cost and the impact the proposal would impose on smaller and medium-sized employers who have already been severely hit by Covid-19 related public health measures while still dealing with the fallout from the financial crash a number of years ago.
While some form of statutory sick pay would appear to be clearly a good thing and in the public interest, we must ensure that the way in which such a scheme is introduced is proportional. If we could devise a workable proposal, it would likely improve healthcare outcomes and make Ireland a more attractive place in which to live and work, and that is something we would all support.
We must engage with the employers and their representative associations as well as worker representatives. In doing so we will consider reforms to the country's horizontal sick pay laws and any related change to illness benefit, which is funded by PRSI. We will also explore a range of measures to address the implicit incentive for a sick person to attend work in a way that would fairly apportion costs among the relevant parties.
We will return to this issue in six months' time, as proposed in our countermotion. I did not get to hear all the contributions but I did hear some of them. I thank all the Deputies for their input and the leader of the Labour Party, Deputy Kelly, who will formally close this debate. I understand what the party is trying to achieve, and the Government accepts that, but for us the issue is timing and how we move this forward by bringing everybody with us to make sure it has no negative effects.
I will refer to the comments my colleague, Deputy Howlin, made earlier. I agree that many companies have been supportive of their employees throughout this crisis, and I have referred to that already, but I do not agree with the suggestion made by the Deputy and other speakers that we can iron out all the issues and consider all the implications in just a matter of days. This is quite a significant proposal. The Bill proposes a rather large change. It needs and merits proper consultation across all the Departments and across this House and its committees. If the Labour Party genuinely wants to achieve progress in this area, it would be best to give the party's proposal enough time such that we could have that proper consultation. We have to be proportionate and consider the microbusinesses and small businesses and the effects this will have on them. There is a duty on us all here to protect jobs and not to put more at risk. We cannot merely push this Bill through this week as its implications are significant. We have to be very careful not only to protect and sustain jobs but also to put our companies and enterprises on a growth path in order that we can achieve new employment in the years to come across the many sectors.
In response to Deputy Bríd Smith's comments about the Government returning to this issue in six months, I will reiterate the points my colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, made in The Irish Times today. The Ministers, Deputies Humphreys and McEntee, have also said the Government is happy to get working now through the many issues that arise, so three lead Ministers are very clearly committed to this and to putting our shoulder to the wheel and doing the work on this in the months ahead. These were not just throwaway comments to put the matter away for six months. We will commence the work and it will involve an appropriate level of consideration and consultation with all the relevant stakeholders - unions, employers and employees. We will carefully evaluate the costs and benefits associated with the initiative. That is the proper way to bring forward a proposal such as this.
I thank Deputies Canney and Mattie McGrath for their comments about protecting microbusinesses and small businesses and not frightening them with new requirements and a knee-jerk response. Most employers are responsible and would be happy to engage in this conversation in an appropriate way and to make the changes we can all afford.
We continue to work to respond to the needs of workers and households and examine gaps in payments. This is why I accept the reasons the Labour Party has brought forward the Bill. I know without a doubt that it is a genuine proposal; the question is how we can make progress in this area. I thank all the Deputies. I have not had a chance to refer to everybody who spoke because I did not hear all the speeches, but I will take note of them in the days ahead.