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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 3

Sick Leave Bill 2022: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the Tánaiste to the House.

I am very pleased to introduce the Sick Leave Bill to the Seanad today. The Bill has completed its passage through the Dáil, and I am keen to have it enacted before the summer recess.

This Bill creates a new workers' right in Ireland. For the first time, employees will be entitled to statutory sick pay from their employers. It is one of five new workers' rights I am establishing this year. The other four include, first, the establishment of a new public holiday, which from next year will be at the start of February to mark Imbolc or St. Brigid's Day. The ministerial order for this has been signed. The second is the right to request remote working, which is undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny and I anxiously await the report from the committee in that regard. The third is for better protection for workplace tips and gratuities, which has completed Second Stage in the Seanad and will be on Committee Stage in the next few weeks. The fourth is a new Covid-19-related lay-off payment for people who were laid off during the pandemic who were subsequently made redundant. This has been legislated for and the payment scheme was commenced in April. Separately, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is legislating for a right to request flexible working for parents and carers.

Introducing statutory sick leave is part of the pandemic dividend. It is about developing a more inclusive economy, as well as a more competitive one, and fairer society. It is about making work pay. The pandemic exposed once again the vulnerable position of many people, especially in the private sector, when it comes to missing work due to illness or injury. No one should feel they have to go work when they are sick because they will lose all of their income if they do. It is bad for them, and it is bad for public health. Sick workers may infect colleagues, clients and customers and they are more likely to make a mistake, leading to harm to themselves and to others.

This is a progressive Bill. It will improve the rights of workers. The events of the last two years have shown how necessary this legislation is. Ireland is one of the few advanced economies in Europe not to have a mandatory sick pay scheme. Cyprus and Portugal are the only other EU member states that do not have employer-funded sick pay or State financial supports similar to Ireland's illness benefit scheme. The United States, Japan and South Korea do not have such a provision either. However, it is part of President Biden's agenda in the United States, if he can get it through Congress. Canada, under Prime Minister Trudeau, is taking steps to introduce employer-funded sick leave at national level. The scheme I am proposing compares favourably with the sick pay scheme in Northern Ireland and Britain, which pays only £96.35 weekly. I would strongly encourage Sinn Féin Senators to put this right in Northern Ireland, should they return to Government there later in the year.

Many employers, we think approximately half of them, do provide sick pay, but low-paid workers are the least likely to be covered. We now need to provide that security, that safety net, for all workers, regardless of their job or whether they are in the public sector or the private sector. The Bill ensures that paid sick leave will be available to all workers. It covers both full-time and part-time workers alike. The Bill will lessen the inequality between the public and private sectors. Nearly all public servants have access to paid sick leave through the public service sick leave scheme. It will reduce inequality between better-paid and lower-paid workers in the private sector, because better-paid workers tend to have access to sick pay, or simply to be able to afford to take time off when ill, whereas lower-paid workers do not. Coverage in the private sector, and particularly among the lowest paid workers, is much lower. This is particularly true for workers in retail and hospitality, where employees often work directly with the public, and the chance of spreading infectious diseases is therefore greater.

Statutory sick pay should be seen as the latest in a series of actions that have improved social protections for workers and the self-employed over the past five years. These include the introduction of paternity benefit, parental leave benefit, enhanced maternity benefit, treatment benefit and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed, including jobseekers. As a starting point, this scheme will cover the three waiting days before eligibility for illness benefit from the State kicks in. Where an employee has an extended period of illness, the scheme will operate seamlessly with the existing illness benefit system. Once the employee has exhausted their entitlement to paid sick leave, they will move onto illness benefit. If eligible, that can last for up to two years if needed.

The four-year plan takes account of the current economic climate and the existing financial pressures on businesses, particularly small businesses and those in the Border region. The number of days will increase incrementally. It is our firm intention that the employer will eventually cover the cost of ten sick days per year, effectively two working weeks, from the fourth year of operation, after which illness benefit from the State kicks in. I would intend for illness benefit to be improved, because savings from this measure will arise from the social insurance fund.

Closing the gap of current waiting days before being able to access illness benefit will help to reduce the number of sick employees presenting for work. Illness benefit is payable from day four and runs up to one year and, in some cases, for two years, as I mentioned earlier. I acknowledge that many businesses are facing additional costs because of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, as well as the aftermath of Covid-19 and Brexit and the disruption both have wrought. Business owners, in particular small employers, tell me that a lot is coming at them at the moment, including higher labour costs, input costs, energy costs, as well as higher costs from Government. Those costs include the additional public holiday, for which I signed the order and from auto-enrolment, which I advanced when I was Minister for Social Protection. I do hear that, I do get that and I do care. That is why we need be fair to employees and employers, particularly SMEs. Therefore, the cost is going to be shared between employers, employees and the Government. It will be phased in and there will be proper controls.

The scheme has been designed based on consultation with employee and employer representatives. Prior to seeking Cabinet approval for the draft of the Bill, my officials undertook a full public consultation that sought the views of relevant stakeholders and the public on key policy questions around the design of the scheme. In addition to the public consultation, my officials also undertook an international review to get a better understanding of how sick leave schemes operate internationally.

I have been clear about what regulations under this legislation will provide for in order to make it predictable for employees and employers alike. Regarding rates, statutory sick pay will initially be paid at 70% of regular earnings, up to €110 per day, from the first day of illness. We are setting a cap to give employers certainty around the costs involved at the outset. It will rise, however, as earnings rise. The regulatory impact assessment illustrates that a scenario in which everyone took the full three days of sick leave in year one would increase payroll costs by 0.8%. That assumes that everyone took the three days. When this scheme has been fully introduced, the maximum additional payroll cost will be 2.7% annually. That is not a small figure and not a negligible increase in cost. However, it is not dissimilar to a typical pay increase in any year. It is important that we bear this point in mind in assessing the cost to employers. A minimum rate entitlement will also be set to ensure that all workers and, particularly, part-time workers receive a reasonable level of financial compensation.

I will now provide a brief explanation of the various sections of the Bill. Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions setting out the Short Title and commencement, and necessary definitions. Section 3 gives the Minister the power to make regulations for matters referred to in the Bill and requires the Minister to lay those regulations before the Oireachtas. Section 4 provides for expenses incurred in relation to the Bill to be refunded out of monies provided by the Oireachtas. Section 5 sets out an employee's entitlement to statutory sick leave and the conditions an employee must satisfy to qualify for paid sick leave.

In the first instance, an employee will be entitled to three paid sick leave days in a calendar year. This may seem modest, but it is set at that level to ensure excessive costs are not imposed on employers, particularly small employers, at the outset. It will increase incrementally over time. Absences may be consecutive or non-consecutive. Regarding eligibility an employee will be required to have worked for their employer for a period of 13 weeks before they become eligible to avail of paid sick leave under the Bill. There was significant debate around the length of service requirement as the Bill passed through the Dáil and amendments were made based on these discussions.

The length of service requirement is linked to the Minimum Notice and Terms of Employment Act 1973. This means an employee will not have to qualify again for sick leave merely because he or she is temporarily laid off, such as, for instance, employees who are laid off over the summer period. We are well aware that this would be a significant issue in some sectors, in particular for workers in schools, crèches and childcare settings, many of whom work on a term-time pattern. Where an employee is laid off, that does not constitute a break in service. His or her service is continuous for the purpose of the Bill.

We think it is reasonable that an employee should have worked for an employer for some time and have established an employee-employer relationship in order to qualify for paid sick leave. For example, if an employer takes somebody on to work in a shop or restaurant for a few weeks in the summer, it would not be fair if that employee took ten days' sick leave at the start and only worked for a week or two after that. This is not an unusual provision. For example, in the case of parental leave, a parent must have completed one year's service with the employer before he or she can take parental leave. It is important to allow sufficient time to establish an employee-employer relationship.

I want to ensure that it is not the case that there will be a reset for every service interruption by an employee. The Dáil amended the Bill to provide extra clarity that each period of service will be cumulative. This means an employee resuming service with an employer on a new contract after a break will be entitled to statutory sick pay as soon as his or her total service amounts to 13 weeks. If he or she was entitled to sick pay when their previous service ended, he or she will be entitled to sick pay from day one when he or she resumes work.

Any day taken as sick leave under the Bill will require a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner. I believe it would be unreasonable to introduce a legal obligation for employers to pay for sick leave without the need for a worker to produce evidence for this in the form of a medical certificate. That would not be sick leave; it would be a different form of leave. Of course, employers do not need to insist on this or can provide uncertified sick days if they so choose. The requirement for a medical certificate for paid sick leave is a fair and necessary provision and is not an unusual requirement. Employees are currently required to provide medical certificates to access the State illness benefit scheme and it is a requirement in many sectoral and company level sick pay arrangements. If the State requires people to produce a medical certificate before receiving State illness benefit, it is not unreasonable that we should allow employers to require the same.

Section 6 provides that the number of sick leave days under the Bill may be increased by ministerial order, and the matters the Minister may wish to consider in doing so. I accepted an amendment on Report Stage in the Dáil from Deputy Paul Murphy that removed the power to reduce the number of statutory sick leave days by ministerial order. It has always been my intention that the number of days provided for would increase over time and there are no plans to reduce the number of sick leave days. It will now require primary legislation to reduce the number provided for. Given the close links between statutory sick leave and illness benefit, and the need to ensure alignment between the two schemes, section 6 provides for consultation with the Minister for Social Protection in advance of any increase in sick leave days.

Section 7 provides for the setting of the rate of payment in respect of sick leave by ministerial order. As I have already stated, the intention is to introduce sick pay at a rate of 70% of regular earnings up to €110 per day. A minimum entitlement will also be set. I know some stakeholders believe that the rate of payment and earnings cap should be set in out the Bill, but I do not agree. Doing so by ministerial order allows greater flexibility. It will allow the rate to be revised as necessary and future-proofs the Bill. We have all seen concerns recently around inflation and the rising cost of living. Allowing the rate of payment to be amended by ministerial order gives us the ability to respond quickly to changing circumstances, and increase the rate as median earnings rise.

Section 8 provides that nothing in the Bill will prevent the inclusion of more favourable provisions in regard to sick leave in a contract of employment. As is always the case with any workers' rights legislation, this legislation sets out the minimum standard, the floor, that an employer must provide. It will not prevent employers having superior sick pay schemes to that which is required by law. Many already do, and I encourage those that can afford to, to do so.

Section 9 provides that obligations under the Bill will not apply where an employer provides his or her employee with a sick pay scheme that confers benefits over the course of a reference period set out in the scheme that are more favourable. This section has been designed with flexibility in mind. We know that a lot of companies in the private sector already offer their employees paid sick leave as part of their contract of employment. Overall, these schemes offer more generous terms and it is not our intention that they will be undermined by the Bill.

For businesses which genuinely cannot afford to pay we have included, under section 10, an inability to pay provision. This allows the Labour Court to grant an exemption to a business from its obligations under this Bill for a period of not less than three months and not more than 12 months. There is a similar provision in the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. It will only be granted where there is a real risk to business sustainability.

Section 11 provides that the rights of an employee will not be affected by exercising his or her right to sick leave under this Bill and that sick leave may not be recorded as any other form of leave. If somebody is sick for a day or two, or more, he or she does not lose any annual, maternity or any other leave to which he or she may be entitled. It also provides that where an employee is on probation, an employer may suspend the probation period while the employee is on sick leave.

Section 12 provides that an employee cannot be penalised for exercising their right to sick leave under the Bill.

Sections 13 to 15, inclusive, deal with enforcement and compliance issues and provide for the relevant amendments to be made to the Workplace Relations Act 2015. This enables and authorises the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to carry out inspections and to take complaints regarding compliance with the Bill. As with other statutory employment rights, where an individual believes he or she is being deprived of rights to which he or she is entitled under the Bill, he or she will be able to refer a complaint to the WRC. There the matter can be dealt with by way of mediation or adjudication, leading to a decision that is enforceable through the District Court. WRC inspectors can also be asked to investigate certain breaches of the provisions of the Bill. The maximum penalty that can be awarded for a breach of the legislation is four weeks' remuneration. This was a judgment call. We are trying to get the balance right and we believe the penalty being double the offence is proportionate. That is the thinking behind it. When the Bill is fully enacted, employees will have the right to two weeks of paid sick leave. If they are refused that unfairly, they will get two weeks' pay and up to four weeks additional pay as a penalty.

I know some will think the Bill goes too far, and others that it does not go far enough. That is inevitable. We have worked to strike a fair and reasonable balance, giving new protections to employees but also predictability to employers. Ultimately, this Bill means that workers will not have to attend work while sick though economic necessity. It will be one of the positive legacies to emerge from the pandemic. It is a step forward for workers' rights and equality. I look forward to listening to Senators' views and working with them all to progress this important legislation through the Seanad as quickly as possible

I thank the Minister. Before I call on speakers, it is my great pleasure to welcome a friend of mine, Councillor Cathal Boland, and his guests from the Garristown Historical Society who are joining us in the Gallery. I understand they are guests of Senator Sharon Keogan.

I welcome to the Gallery the Cathaoirleach of Tipperary County Council, Councillor Marie Murphy.

I thank the Tánaiste for bringing the Bill before the House. At the end of his contribution, he said some people will think we have not gone far enough and other will say we have gone too far. What everyone agrees on is that this Bill is needed. As a committee, we had countless discussions while working through the Bill and each member had different proposals and ideas. It is good that we are now at this stage.

I note in the Minister's contribution he referred to concerns for businesses. A lot of work has been done in his Department over the past number of years in terms of workers' rights and important things have been brought through which he has outlined, including remote working, workplace tips and the national public holiday. These all benefit employees.

However, the provisions also benefit employers and give certainty. I acknowledge that a report by the Local Jobs Alliance has been produced on sick pay because it has concerns about costs to small businesses but we can assure the alliance that there is to be a phase-in period of four years. This is to support small businesses and recognise that the change is trickier for them than for big businesses.

People will welcome this measure. It gives those on a lower income more reassurance. We all know people who go to work when sick when they should not. They might go to work on the Tuesday and Wednesday but not on the Friday. However, for financial reasons they have to go to work. This measure gives them the certainty that they do not have to do so if they cannot. It is good for businesses as well.

From the Minister's contribution, I noted what was he is doing in his Department. Importantly, he spoke about the living wage and the four-year period in which to abolish the minimum wage in favour of a living wage by 2026. The relevant legislation will be really important. The minimum wage is €10.50. If we were to introduce the living wage, it would be €12.17. We are not a million miles away from it at the moment, so it is realistic that it can be introduced at the level in question. Obviously, in 2026 the living wage will be at a different level based on the average income. It is another important element. The Bill will be broadly welcomed on our side. Some of the concerns that others have raised at meetings of the committee and that will probably be raised today are genuine but we all agree it is important to introduce the legislation.

The wording of a point the Tánaiste made is important. He said he acknowledged that many businesses are facing additional costs because of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. We often say the rise in business costs is because of the war in Ukraine. It is not; it is because of someone else's war that is happening in Ukraine. That is really important to point out. We had a delegation here yesterday that recognised that businesses and employers are suffering because of costs. The report out today focuses on the fact that employers' costs have risen dramatically over recent years. Putin's war has an impact, but it is important that we phrase things correctly when speaking about it. I recognise that employers are worried about costs. It is because of this worry that the new measure is to be phased in over four years. I welcome the Bill and thank the Tánaiste.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the Seanad. As Minister, he has championed so many policies. His commitment today concerns statutory sick leave. This is about his commitment to achieving his goals for workers' rights. It really shows how Fine Gael's policies are ensuring rights for those on all wages, especially those on the minimum wage. We know that more than half of all businesses provide sick leave. The remainder are more than likely in low-pay sectors. Therefore, it is crucial that this Bill deliver for those in these sectors.

As the Tánaiste mentioned in his introduction, Covid showed how important it is that people who are sick can take time off work. We also noted how women in the low-pay sector were greatly affected. Many working in retail and hospitality, including as cleaners, suffered. There was no equality. What the Minister is doing is bringing in equal rights for workers in all sectors. That is crucial.

I really appreciate that there has been consultation. The Minister has mentioned that the costs will be shared between employers and employees. The consultation process is crucial. The Minister also stated that his Department has engaged in a peer review to determine the approach in various countries across the world. He stated we are now joining the ranks of so many in the European Union to deliver proper workers' rights, particularly when it comes to accessing sick leave.

As the Tánaiste said, this legislation is a safety net for people. Is there a way to review the impact of the legislation, perhaps in a year or two? I realise the Tánaiste said that, within four years, we will have a period of up to ten days. That would be phenomenal. Currently, the period is three days. Taking into account the pressures on the business sector, could we, maybe in a few years' time, ascertain the impact of the legislation, particularly on men and women in those sectors that are considered to have low pay? I am talking about people working in manufacturing and warehousing and those in abattoirs. There are many areas where people could not take sick leave, which had a huge impact. Well done to the Tánaiste for introducing this legislation and for the work we are seeing on workers' rights. Again, this is about ensuring equality for people.

I join Senator Ahearn in welcoming Councillor Murphy to the Gallery. We are honoured to have the councillor here.

The Tánaiste is welcome to the House. I believe this is the first time I have addressed him in this House since he was elected, which was a long time ago. To go back to that dreadful St. Patrick's Day when he addressed us all from Washington or New York at the start of Covid, I was amazed at how quickly he responded to requests from Independents like me who were not party affiliated in any way. Over the period of Covid, I had to make contact with the Tánaiste on a few occasions. On the matter of class K PRSI, which dates from when he was Minister for Social Protection, he listened and made a change. That is his hallmark, as far as I am concerned. I do not often have to call on the Tánaiste but when I do, he responds quickly. I thank him for that.

There is no doubt but that Covid has brought about a huge amount of change to the way we do our business and treat employees. The world has moved on. There are many debates and discussions about the right to work from home and the various other things the Tánaiste addressed while here. No doubt these will be thrashed out over time, hopefully to the benefit of workers. I was rather surprised that it took a Fine Gael Minister to start to change workers' rights as quickly as they have changed in recent times. For that, I compliment the Minister.

As my colleague Senator Ahearn said, there are questions of concern to very small businesses. I had a discussion today with representatives of the Local Jobs Alliance. We were discussing small retailers with two or three employees and how sick leave might impact them. We spoke about small men's shops with one or two employees and how sick pay might represent a substantial cost to such organisations. A small supermarket under any one of the brand names might have two or three employees whereas a shop with the same brand two miles down the road might have 20 employees and comprise quite a substantial organisation. In trying to alleviate some of the problems created by sick pay for some of the very small employers, there is a considerable challenge for the Minister, and for Senators in producing amendments, in establishing where "small" and "weak" start and stop. A shop with three employees could have a turnover of €500,000 per year whereas another shop with three employees could have a turnover of €50,000 per year. There is no doubt that this will cause problems. The Minister adverted to this, as did my colleague Senator Ahearn. I am sure we will have some debate on that.

However, I believe this is a really positive step. It is a great idea. For far too long, employees, particularly the lower paid, were thrown to the wolves. There has been a misconception down through the years that public sector workers have got some sort of golden contract of employment whereby they are well looked after. In my 25 years as a member of the Teacher's Union of Ireland and as its president towards the end, the exploitation of public sector workers was rampant.

We changed from appointing teachers to offering hours. We finished up in a situation where the supervisors who work on community employment schemes, which are fantastic schemes that offer a huge amount to their communities, are treated appallingly and have no pension rights. I know that work is being done in that area. A similar point can be made with regard to pension systems for former members of the Defence Forces. This impacts lower ranked people, some of whom work in these Houses. They leave after 25 or 35 years of service, and up to 40 years of service in some cases, with a pension but the moment they take on any public sector employment they start to lose that pension. Whether we like it or not, pension abatement is theft of a pension. I believe it is unconstitutional. The only reason we get away with it is because those unfortunates who are hit by it can never afford to go to the High Court to fight their case. That is something we might do. Maybe at some stage the Tánaiste and I will sit down and have a discussion on that to see whether we can find a way around it.

Overall, I congratulate the Tánaiste for bringing forward legislation that will benefit the workers of this country. I am sure that between us, we will propose a few amendments as this legislation passes through the House. Today is a good day and I hope this legislation passes quickly. I thank the Tánaiste for bringing the legislation to the House.

I thank the Tánaiste for his time before the House. Like other colleagues, I welcome this legislation. Every worker deserves the right to be paid sick leave. Workers have that facility already in the vast majority of countries across Europe and it is time that Ireland joins that list.

Covid-19 made clear the very precarious position of many workers, particularly in lower paid roles and in the private sector. As I am sure the Tánaiste and all Members of the House have done, I have spoken to many people who must go to work even when they are very sick because they cannot afford not to do so. In my opinion, that is not acceptable. We must move away from a culture that tolerates such a situation and this legislation is the first significant step to do so.

Research suggests that around 50% of workers have sick leave pay at present. Obviously there is a significant difference between public and private sectors in this regard. It is a de facto standard across the public service but coverage is much lower in the private sector.

I want to raise some concerns about the impact this legislation will have on businesses, particularly SMEs which are the backbone of the Irish economy. I recognise that the legislation will be brought in on a phased basis so SMEs will have time to adjust over the coming years. The costs have been capped to ensure the burden is limited. Having said that, the legislation will still have a significant impact on businesses with customer-facing staff, particularly in the hospitality and retail sectors which already face challenging circumstances as we look to rebound from Covid. It is probable that SMEs in these sectors will have to deal with a multiple number of staff missing work due to a contagious disease such as flu. Replacing staff at short notice will prove very difficult. First, as we are all aware, there are significant staff shortages in these sectors currently. Second, the provision will be very expensive for businesses. I expect that businesses in the hospitality sector looking to replace staff at short notice to work on a Friday or Saturday night, or on a Sunday, will have to offer to pay them at a time and a half, or at a double-time rate, in addition to paying the employee who is out on sick leave. This means businesses will incur significant additional costs and expenses.

I recognise that section 10 of the legislation includes an inability to pay provision. One could identify that as being a relief for businesses that are under pressure but it may come too late for some businesses. The reality is that many SMEs do not have the capacity or knowledge to make use of the provision. I would say that the majority of SMEs will not even know that the provision exists.

Like other Members, I have been contacted by a number of people representing SMEs who have expressed real concern about the additional costs that their businesses will face under this Bill. They are good honest and decent people who want to do right by their staff, but between Covid-19 and inflationary and supply-chain issues many of them are already under significant pressure. I know from my own experience that the longer an employee works for and with a business, the better the relationship, and the business will thrive as a result. I have experienced that at first hand. I know what it is like to have a good understanding between an employer and employee. As the years build, respect grows, the employee works better and as a result the business thrives. Therefore, it is in everybody's interest to get this right.

There has been a suggestion that this legislation will add between 1% and 2% to the payroll bill. My opinion is that 1% or 2% may sound like a small amount but for many SMEs, particularly those in the hospitality sector such as bars, restaurants and shops that employ seven or eight staff, that has potential to mean many thousands of euro a year. Representatives of SMEs have told me that this is money that they simply do not have in the current climate.

As I have stated and as other Senators have stated, we all believe that workers should have sick leave. We must move forward with the legislation but we need to ensure we do not risk the viability of SMEs across various sectors. I respectfully suggest that we enhance the supports given to SMEs as we move this proposal forward. A tax rebate would be a fairer way and may make sense as a method of doing this. I would be grateful to hear the views of the Tánaiste on that aspect.

The Tánaiste is very welcome. Sinn Féin supports this Bill and has campaigned for statutory sick pay for several years. Indeed, today is very important day as it recognises the work of trade unions, which have campaigned tirelessly in this regard. It has been a sad fact that Ireland has lagged decades behind the rest of Europe when it comes to the provision of sick pay so the Bill is welcome.

I acknowledge what was said by Senator Ahearn. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment had a lot of good debates on this matter. Members of the committee had different points of view but all of us wanted to support the general thrust of the Bill. It is just a question of different perspectives in terms of where we think it hits the right note. In that regard, I suspect that Sinn Féin will table a couple of amendments on Committee Stage.

Sick pay is an issue that is very personal to me because in my work as a trade union official, particularly with low-paid workers, I found that no matter how sick they were they turned up to work because they desperately needed money. I am thinking of contract cleaners in particular. They were probably low-paid people with no sick pay provision and it was a real hardship. The lack of sick pay was something that many foreign nationals, in particular, could not understand because in many of their countries, poor and all as they were, sick pay was in place whereas it was not in place here. It is important to recognise and welcome the Bill in that context.

I wish to raise some points with the Tánaiste. There was a concern about the 13-week period. I recognise that it was a welcome amendment to cover people during the summer period. It is important to get that aspect right so that people who are laid off during the summer do not have to start from zero.

The joint committee had a big debate on certification. To be clear, Sinn Féin believes that certification is important in order to defend the integrity of the Bill. We are not saying that one does not need certificates. The difficulty is the reality of the healthcare system. If any of us phone our GPs today to ask for an appointment, we will have to wait. Certainly, I would have to wait a week or maybe ten days. There is also a cost element involved. I am conscious that with Sláintecare, all of us have signed up to the idea that there should be free GP care. Sinn Féin would make the following key point: while we wait for free GP care to be achieved, we would have thought that it would be reasonable to introduce a rebate scheme so that workers are not penalised for having to see a doctor and get a certificate. That is a reasonable point because all of us know the pressure that the GP system is under at the moment. We know we have a particular challenge in terms of the number of GPs. It just seems very problematic. If we do not put some kind of rebate system in place, many workers may choose to turn up at work sick rather than incur the cost of having to go to a GP. I was shocked to find out recently that the cost of a GP appointment in Dublin can be as high as €70, which is no small amount of money. That is a matter we need to revisit on Committee Stage. Sinn Féin is still concerned with the 13-week period. We may want to take a further look at that but I acknowledge the amendment that was made in that context.

The Tánaiste referenced some other points about workers' rights. I would like to pick up on a couple of them in the context of the broader issue.

First, I hope we will see the tips Bill come back before the summer recess. We had a constructive engagement in this House on it several weeks ago. In particular, I hope the service charge issue is dealt with sufficiently. I know the Department has received many direct comments from workers and trade unions in respect of their experience in that regard. It is important that we get that Bill right. The likelihood is that it will not be revisited afterwards. Getting that service charge element dealt with properly so that workers are not exploited is a very important point to take on board.

The Tánaiste also referred to the living wage. I welcome any moves towards a living wage. It is an unfortunate fact that, right now, the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage is broader than it has ever been in recent years. My concern in respect of the Tánaiste's plans for the living wage is that he seems to be saying that the definition of a living wage put forward by the living wage technical group is not the right definition. I have not heard arguments as to why it is not the right definition. The difference is that, right now, a living wage is €12.90 an hour according to the living wage technical group, while the Tánaiste stated that, according to his calculations, the living wage should be €12.17 an hour. I am deeply uncomfortable about very well-paid politicians telling low-paid workers that they do not need €12.90 an hour and they will manage on €12.17. Let us be frank. With the cost-of-living crisis we are going through, no worker can earn enough money on either of those rates. I am not comfortable with that. We need a further conversation on why the living wage technical group rate, which has been accepted for many years, is now apparently not going to be accepted by the Government. It looks like a way to skimp on paying people a proper living wage. I have always maintained that people who work for a living should be able to earn a living. Unfortunately, for far too many people at the moment, that is not the case. I look forward to a further debate in that regard.

Sinn Féin does welcome the Bill. I look forward to constructive debates today and on Committee Stage and to seeing the onward progress of the Bill.

I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House. I am delighted that we finally have the opportunity to debate the Bill. By the time it is enacted, it will probably be two years since the Labour Party put forward its legislation in the Dáil. Although we have obviously been impatient, we nonetheless herald the Bill as important legislation. Particular credit must be paid to the work of Patricia King, Laura Bambrick and others at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, as well as to SIPTU, which spent so much of the summer of 2020 highlighting the appalling lack of sick pay for low-paid workers, particularly those working in the red meat sector. One in ten workers in the red meat sector and one in six workers in the childcare sector have sick pay. As all present are aware, Ireland is one of a small number of EU member states that does not have statutory sick pay.

Before I speak on the detail, it is important to pay tribute to all those who were sick and out of pocket during the pandemic, notwithstanding that the Covid illness benefit was made available. I was thinking this morning of the boner in a meat factory who described to me in vivid detail the pressure he or she was under to continue going to work every day notwithstanding that there were men in the factory who clearly had Covid. I was thinking also of the single parent childcare worker who was absolutely terrified of being a close contact or getting Covid, yet, when she was a close contact, she did the right thing and stayed at home notwithstanding that she was very much out of pocket. It is important to state that the enhanced illness benefit was available, but that €350 was only 47% of median earnings and, for the lowest paid, it meant a severe hit on their pockets.

The Bill is important but, as the Tánaiste acknowledged, it is far from what we believe should be in place. We in the Labour Party are certainly in the camp that believes the Bill should go much further. Section 5 sets down a minimum wait period of 13 weeks. Like Senator Gavan, I acknowledge the amendment that was inserted to cover those who do not work during summer, but I still believe there is an issue for seasonal workers who work during summer or the spring and summer months. They are not necessarily captured by that amendment and will still have to start the 13 weeks when they commence employment in the spring or summer period. Section 5 provides for three statutory days. Of course, we have heard the Tánaiste's plan to increase that to ten days but I still have not heard a justification as to why we cannot hardwire this into the legislation. The Tánaiste referred to wanting flexibility, and ministerial regulation offering that greater flexibility, but there is no reason a simple amendment to this legislation could not be moved. Ultimately, this is about trust. We have to be able to trust that the Government will make good on those ten days. I was struck yesterday in the context of the commitment on the living wage legislation that it is for a year beyond the lifetime of the Government. We need a clear timetable with regard to those ten days.

The other issue relating to trust is that of the costs employers keep telling us they will have to take on because of this new provision in legislation. In the course of pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, we on the enterprise, trade and employment committee heard employers speak about the costs but when we asked them about the replacement needs and the costs associated with the replacement, we got vague answers. I absolutely accept that in retail and hospitality there will be costs. The other side of it, however, is that, as Senator Crowe mentioned, there are significant labour shortages in the sector at the moment so it does not necessarily follow that employers will be able to pull people in at short notice when a member of staff goes sick.

There being three days sick pay entitlement does not mean that all workers will take up that entitlement. I believe there was an assumption in the regulatory impact assessment that workers would take up the full entitlement per year. Most of us in this room were employees before entering political life. Did any of us take the full entitlement to sick pay? I think most of us would say we did not. That is true of most working people in this country.

Section 7 assures that the Minister will issue regulations at a future date on the rate of payment. The Tánaiste in his speech referred to a rate of 70% in that regard. We in the Labour Party believe it needs to be at the full rate of payment because, ultimately, why should people be punished when they are out sick? I think in particular of minimum wage workers who, under this legislation, will have to go to a doctor from day one of being ill, yet will earn less in a day than the cost of going to the doctor. A minimum wage worker will earn €57 on a full day's rate, yet we know that the average cost of going to a GP is at least €60, if not more.

That brings me to the issue in respect of medical certification. As has been stated, in an ideal world we would have timely and affordable access to a GP, or access at no cost, indeed, but that is not the reality in this country. The pre-legislative scrutiny was interesting in this regard as it illuminated the thinking in the Department in respect of the costs of going to a GP. It was asserted that 2 million people have medical cards and, in some ways, it is not really an issue for lower-paid workers to access a GP. The reality is that, as we know from wave 5 of the Healthy Ireland survey, just 14.6% of those in employment and aged between 18 and 64 hold a medical card, while just 3.6% hold a GP visit card. It was disappointing that the Department would throw such generalised figures about in respect of what it perceives to be the ease of accessing a GP. My colleagues and I know from speaking to households and families day in, day out that they have to think twice about the cost of going to a doctor. As Senator Gavan stated, they are waiting a significant period before doing so. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment put forward a really good recommendation on a cross-party basis that some form of rebate be put in place, particularly for low-paid workers, and I am disappointed that recommendation has not found its way into the legislation.

In conclusion, notwithstanding our serious concerns in respect of the extent of the Bill, it is obviously important legislation. Sick pay will be the main legacy of the pandemic to workers. It does say something that the introduction of sick pay commands cross-party support.

Workers on the lowest incomes, who depend on every single cent of what they earn, will be at a loss when they are out sick. That is not good enough.

Before proceeding, I note that we have a richness of distinguished visitors in the Gallery today. It is my pleasure to welcome Councillor Jimmy McClearn, who is a guest of Senator Dolan.

I am sharing time with Senator Conway. I welcome the Tánaiste and thank him for all the work he has done in his brief, including the introduction of a new public holiday, provision for remote working, legislation on the treatment of tips and gratuities, supports for workers during the Covid lay-off period and now the introduction of statutory sick pay. I am a former member of the Retail Grocery Dairy & Allied Trades Association, RGDATA, the Convenience Stores & Newsagents Association, CSNA, and the Vintners Federation of Ireland, VFI. While I am no longer involved in those organisations, it is important to state that I was involved in the past. I have received the report on small businesses. I welcome that report and the engagement in this regard by the Tánaiste.

It is the right thing to do to introduce statutory sick pay, especially for people on lower pay. I welcome that it is being introduced on a gradual basis. Many small businesses have gone through a very tough time, as the Tánaiste acknowledged in his opening statement. Senator Crowe noted that they are seeking a rebate scheme, which I ask the Tánaiste to consider. For small niche businesses, in particular, there are increasing costs, including in regard to the minimum wage. Businesses have faced a lot of cost increases in recent times. The cost of everything to do with running a business has risen. I acknowledge that the Government has done much for small businesses and certainly helped to keep them afloat during the Covid crisis and in the context of what is happening with the war in Ukraine. The latter is an unprecedented situation that is not of the Government's making. However, I urge the Tánaiste to look at some sort of rebate scheme for smaller businesses. While I know it is difficult to give to one and not to the other, there are many large businesses that are thriving, while smaller businesses have really felt the pain.

I welcome An Tánaiste to the House and I welcome this Bill. It is extremely important because we really were an outlier in Europe in regard to sick pay. I fully understand the challenges and difficulties smaller businesses face. I welcome the provision for a gradual introduction of the statutory scheme and the sharing of costs between businesses and the State. The Government has a responsibility to legislate for sick pay because people do get ill and, when they do, they deserve some latitude and some little bit of compensation.

This Bill, the remote working proposals that are going through at the moment, what is being done in the legislation on tips and gratuities and what has been recommended by the Low Pay Commission regarding a living wage are all important provisions. They are small, incremental steps. None of them on its own will resolve the challenge of getting workers into businesses, for example, in the hospitality industry. None of them will make a wealthy person out of a worker. Combined, however, they will create an environment in which people feel appreciated and that they will be properly remunerated for the work they do.

The introduction of a minimum wage many years ago was the right thing to do. At that time, it represented 60% of the median wage. Even though it has been increased many times, including on eight occasions since 2011, it no longer represents the median wage, as it should, and it is not proportionate. What is being proposed in terms of a living wage is important.

As I said, there is a staffing crisis, particularly in the hospitality, retail, food and drink industries. Something must be done about it. We are not unique as a country in facing these challenges, which are reflected right across the western world. However, we can be unique in terms of our responses. There are actions the Tánaiste can take in his Department and I know he has done work on some of them already. One of the actions that can be taken is speeding up the granting of work permits. That is critical because, let us face it, many of the workers in the restaurant and hotel industries are people who come from abroad and may require work permits. We can speed up the process of granting those permits.

We also can loosen up the arrangements to allow people who are here for educational purposes to do more work. Currently, there is a limit on the amount of work they can do. Something can be done in this regard.

I must ask the Senator to conclude.

I will make one further quick point. I welcome the proposal to increase the €4,500 students can earn over the summer without losing their Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grant. All of these measures, taken together, will make it easier for businesses to hire and retain staff.

I am sharing time with Senator Burke. I welcome the Tánaiste and I welcome the legislation. I pay tribute to him for driving forward significant changes for workers throughout the country, which is extremely welcome. It is also welcome that there will be a gradual introduction of statutory sick pay over a number of years, building up to an entitlement of ten days. However, I am concerned that this provision will put a lot of stresses on many businesses, particularly in the retail and hospitality sectors. I have a small business and I know from personal experience the effect the change will have. This is especially the case for businesses in the services industry, with employers having to cover approximately 70% of the costs when an employee is out sick and, in addition, 100% of the cost of a replacement employee. We must be cognisant of that.

I support the calls by Senator Maria Byrne and the CSNA for a rebate scheme. I am strongly of the view that such a scheme needs to be put in place. Businesses are struggling and there are very tight margins, particularly in retail. Where there are significant increased costs, they must be spread across the rest of the business. There already have been significant increases in the cost of energy and businesses are prepared to accept further such increases, but they need help. In the retail sector, in particular, there are certain areas of the business on which those increases cannot be imposed. If a retailer is a national lottery agent, for instance, there is a set margin. Cigarettes can make up a significant part of a retailer's sales but, under the Finance Acts, it is not possible to put anything on top of the recommended retail price of tobacco. Any increases will have to be spread across bread, milk and other basic goods. This will have the knock-on effect of increasing the cost of living for people.

I strongly urge that consideration be given to putting a rebate scheme in place. As I said, there is a severe knock-on impact on business, particularly smaller retail businesses and the hospitality sector. Nevertheless, I welcome the Tánaiste's comments and the proposed introduction of a living wage. That is needed. Employers want to, and will, support the introduction of statutory sick pay, but they want help as well.

I thank the Tánaiste for coming to the House and wish him well with this legislation. It is very welcome.

It is only right that workers are well looked after. Employees must be kept happy because then they will do more work and the better the return one will get. As previous speakers said, however, there is going to be a knock-on impact from the cost of this scheme. Somebody has to pay for it. It must be paid for. It will either be the case that small businesses will close or there will be a major increase in costs. This is because the money must be found somewhere. This is a cost to employers. I met many of them and they are wondering why they are paying PAYE and PRSI. Why not pay a little bit more and cover the cost of those sick days? I say that because, in some cases, this could have a devastating effect on some small businesses. As Senator Carrigy said, it will have implications for small businesses especially. If some scheme was put in place to help them, that would be beneficial.

It was mentioned that there are only two countries that do not have such a scheme, but how many countries have a state-sponsored scheme? I think some of the schemes are sponsored by states. In how many of the countries is it just the employers that pay for the sick days? Equally, what level of sickness is there in the private sector compared with the public sector? Is there a difference? Do all the employees in the public sector take their full allocation of sick days? I ask this because I have often heard people say they have a couple of sick days left and must take them. We have all heard that, and we will probably hear more of it as things go on. What was the level in this regard before the pandemic? The Tánaiste said the events of the last two years have shown how necessary it is to put this legislation in place. This is true. We saw this in the meat industry in particular. Have we, though, carried out any analysis of the level of sickness at work prior to these events? Was any analysis done on that aspect?

I welcome this legislation and thank the Tánaiste for what he is doing for workers. It is only right that workers are well looked after. I again refer to there being some sort of a scheme in this context for small employers and the self-employed. Otherwise, some of them are going to go out of business and costs are going to go way up.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber. It is a pleasure to be able to discuss this Bill with him. I welcome this legislation coming to the House. As was mentioned by my colleague, Senator Crowe, Fianna Fáil will, of course, be supporting this Bill. It is an important one because it gives all workers in Ireland the right to paid sick leave for the first time. This is something I firmly support. It is long overdue. Workers and their families deserve and need access to a level of paid sick leave. It is a fundamental right of workers and I am pleased my party can play its part in delivering this provision.

Many of us in this House and in the Lower House have been aware of the precarious conditions of many workers, especially those who are low paid and in the private sector. It is fair to say that the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the great disparities in terms and conditions between workers. Undoubtedly, this Bill seeks to advance the cause of workers and attempts to equalise entitlements in respect of sick leave. No one should ever feel pressured to go to work when unwell because of not being able to afford not to for fear of ending up in a situation where mortgage, rent or utility bill payments could be missed. I know of a case of one lady who had cancerous cells found during a routine breast check. Luckily, that cancer was caught early and the cancerous tissue was removed through surgery. That lady is now waiting for her radiotherapy sessions to begin. She was, however, scared, shocked and emotionally distraught and, unfortunately, had to go back to work two weeks after her surgery because her employer refused to pay her sick pay. It is not right for that to be the case two weeks after serious and invasive surgery. She simply could not afford to recover from cancer. It is wrong that this lady was forced to work straight through radiotherapy sessions regardless of the impact. This is wrong in the Ireland of 2022 and that is why this Bill is so important. People need to know that illness, and especially serious illness, will not financially ruin them and their families.

We are one of the few advanced economies in Europe without a mandatory sick leave entitlement. Under current arrangements, sick leave is provided to about half of all employees through their terms and conditions. This situation cannot be allowed to continue where a mere 50% of workers are covered. As members of Government parties, we must continue to advocate on behalf of workers. There is a significant gap between workers in the public sector, almost all of whom get sick pay, and those in the private sector, where there is much less coverage. Equalisation in terms and conditions must be a priority.

I am glad the scheme is being phased in to help employers to plan and to manage the additional cost, which has been capped. The new scheme will start with three days per year once the Bill is enacted, and that will rise to five days in 2024, seven days in 2025 and ten days in 2026. It is a significant change and one that small business owners are anxious about. There is no doubt that many larger private sector businesses can well afford a sick pay scheme and are simply choosing to not pay it. Equally, however, many SMEs and independent operators, even in my area of south Kildare, are concerned about this idea. The amendments made by the Government in the Dáil, however, have strengthened this legislation regarding the maximum amount the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, or Labour Court can award. This has brought the penalty for breaches more into line with protections for other types of leave.

The Bill is intended to support the rights and conditions of workers. Again, from my dealings with small business owners in south Kildare, I know the response has been positive. Businesses want to support their staff and to treat their employees well. I have no doubt that this Bill will aid them in this regard. It will still have an impact, however, and I would like to see some level of support being put in place to help ease the pressure on and, indeed, the anxieties of many small business owners. I say that because this could potentially be a costly change. We must help to ensure that it does not disproportionately impact small businesses. We all received a report from the Local Jobs Alliance, LJA, that highlighted the challenges for the sector. If people are sick, the employer will have to pay 70% of the cost of the sick leave, but also 100% of the cost of the replacement. We must examine this aspect because need an equitable system. We must bear this in mind in a context where we are talking about rural Ireland, supporting businesses and reincentivising supports for village and town centres.

I welcome the Tánaiste to the Chamber and the introduction of this important legislation. The Sick Leave Bill 2022 will provide a statutory sick leave pay scheme for all employees, which will be phased in over four years. As the Tánaiste pointed out, we are one of the few countries in Europe without a mandatory sick leave entitlement. Therefore, this is a welcome catching up, if you like, to bring us into line with our European partners. As was said, under the current arrangements, sick leave is provided for about half of all employees through the terms and conditions of their employment. The scheme will start with three days being provided annually. The provision will then rise to five days and subsequently to ten days of sick leave in 2026. Sick leave will be paid by employers at a rate of 70% of employees' wages, subject to a daily maximum threshold of €110. The legislation is intended to provide the minimum level of protection to low-paid employees. It does not, of course, prevent employers from offering better terms or trade unions from negotiating for greater provision through collective agreements. Employees must obtain a medical certificate to avail of statutory sick leave, which I am sure will allay some of the concerns people may have regarding abuse in the system. A cost is associated with a sick cert, so I do not think this system will be open to a great level of abuse.

There are no employees without employers and, likewise, there are no employers without employees.

I know the Tánaiste has engaged with the unions and business groups. IBEC has been in contact and has raised a number of concerns from the employers' point of view. These include the cost burden, a matter that others have mentioned. This is particularly with regard to companies with no sick pay scheme. IBEC also spoke about excessive costs being placed on employers. It noted that the daily rate is out of line with what is available in Northern Ireland and the UK on a weekly basis. It is £95 or £96 per week. IBEC also referred to the exclusion provided for in section 9. I ask the Tánaiste to comment on the engagement he has had regarding IBEC's concerns about a lack of clarity and the fact that the provision it is somewhat imprecise.

The Tánaiste is very welcome. This is a very important day. The Bill is of enormous importance to workers. I welcome this. It is about the protection of workers and showing that Fine Gael, a party of government, is the party of the worker. The Tánaiste is right that this is the fifth piece of legislation he will introduce on workers' rights. I remind Opposition Senators that this Bill is building on legislation relating to paternity leave, parental leave benefit, enhanced maternity benefit, treatment benefit and the extension of social insurance benefits to the self-employed. I ask those opposite to go and tell the people they speak to every day that Fine Gael is the party of the worker. Work will pay and does pay under Fine Gael. Senator Gavan may well smile at me but the reality is that we are the party of the worker. We will always do the right thing for the worker in this country. This is what government is about. It is not about populism but making tough decisions that will benefit the worker and ensure the worker and the employer can prosper and survive in a world that is very challenging at present.

Senators Burke, Kyne and Carrigy mentioned the issues raised with us by some of the small and medium enterprises and the concerns they have about a potential knock-on effect. There was engagement in the consultation process. There is concern among those in retail, the fast food industry and hospitality. I hope their concerns can be met and that in the implementation we can develop a working schedule in respect of the Bill.

Today is important. It is about ensuring that work does pay and that we protect our workers. Our economy is not about pounds, pennies and shillings. It is about the worker and the ability to go out and perform work. We have seen from Covid-19 that the world of work has changed. Under this Government and that which preceded it, there has been further enhancement of the rights of and protections for workers. This should be saluted and acknowledged in the House.

I thank the Senators for their contributions, which are very welcome. Senator Dolan asked whether we could review the impact of this in a few years' time. This would be good practice. We had intended to do so anyway. The first or second year might be too soon but perhaps it could be done in the third or fourth year. I am happy to make that commitment.

I thank Senator Craughwell for his kind remarks. The issue of class K contributions is not fully resolved. It has been resolved for councillors but not yet for officeholders or Oireachtas Members who still pay class K contributions but receive no benefits. I hope we will be able to resolve it at some point in the future.

The Senator made a very valid point on pension abatement for public servants. It is something we introduced at a time of high unemployment and we did not want teachers, doctors and nurses who took early retirement and got pensions then going back to work and continuing to get the pension while being paid to do a job that a young teacher, nurse or doctor could be doing. We are in a very different position now. We have a labour shortage and we would like more retired people to go back to do a bit of part-time work. The time has come to look at this again.

Senator Crowe asked about tax. The cost of paying sick pay is deductible as a business expense. Where it results in reduced profit there will be a reduced tax liability.

I take the points made by Senators on the cost involved in seeing a GP. It is true that approximately 40% of people in Ireland do not have to pay their GP, but there are still many people on low pay who do not qualify for a medical card or a doctor visit card. The solution lies in improving eligibility in line with the Sláintecare plan. I hear what people said about a rebate being a good idea as an alternative. It is a good idea. We have a rebate system for dental expenses and optical expenses through the treatment benefit scheme. Perhaps we could do something similar and allow people to get one or two doctor visits a year refunded through treatment benefit. It would be a good idea. It would have to be negotiated with GPs and they are not the easiest people to negotiate with as people know. The current negotiations are focusing on extending free GP care to children aged six and seven. I would be happy to have this negotiation include extending treatment benefit to allow working people who pay PRSI to have some or part of their doctor visits refunded. It is a good idea.

I want to clarify that the proposal the living wage should be €12.17 an hour this year was not calculated by me or any politician. It was calculated by the Low Pay Commission, which is a statutory body made up of workers' representatives, business representatives and independent experts. They are the ones who suggested 60% of medium income earnings. The Low Pay Commission sets out why in its report, which includes research carried out by Maynooth University. It is all there for Senators to familiarise themselves with. The living wage technical group is a different body full of very fine people who all come from union, NGO or academic backgrounds. Nobody in the group represents employers or runs a significant business. I do not think it is an appropriate body to make such a determination. It does not have a democratic mandate or a statutory basis. It excludes business people and employers. The Low Pay Commission is the best body to do this.

I am sure there will always be people who can set up a group and say the living wage should be something else. They might say it should be something lower and they might call that the realistic living wage. They might say it should be something higher and call it the real living wage, the true living wage or the decent living wage. There will always be people who believe the living wage should be a different figure. The Low Pay Commission is the statutory body. It is tripartite. It has set out the research basis for why it recommended 60% of median earnings at least initially.

With regard to the four year plan to get to ten days or two weeks' sick leave I do not want to hardwire it into the legislation. I am asking the House to trust me on this. We have to consider the possibility that something could go horribly wrong with our economy. We are almost at full employment, with 2.5 million people in employment. This is more than ever before. What if something did go terribly wrong? We know how quickly things changed ten or 12 years ago. Overnight we went from a booming economy to a major crisis. I want to be prepared if something goes wrong, even though I do not think that will be the case.

Why did we go for a 70% replacement rate? It is because we want to share the cost, with 30% from the employee and 70% from the employer and the State kicking in with illness benefit on day four. I acknowledge that for the employer, as some Senators have been mentioned, there can be a double cost because it is not just the cost of sick pay but also the cost of a replacement employee who may then have to be paid a premium. There is not always a need a replacement employee but in some cases there is and there is a real cost involved.

I am open to the idea of a rebate scheme for employers. I do not think we will have it for year one. A this is phased in and the costs for employers rise, I would be open to the idea of a rebate scheme. It would work as a rebate from the Social Insurance Fund. This is funded by employers' PRSI. Many other countries do it. We are bringing ourselves into line with other countries by introducing sick pay. It would make sense to bring in a rebate scheme as other countries also have. I would point out to Senators that everything must be paid for, as they have said to me. The average social insurance paid by employers in the average European country is 20%. It is roughly double employers' PRSI here. If we were to do it and provide more rebates to employers there would have to be a quid pro quo in terms of the contributions they make through employers' PRSI, bringing them more in line with the norm in other European countries.

I will repeat the figure I used earlier. If everyone did take the full three days, and I do not think everyone will, the increase in the cost of labour for employers next year would be 0.8%. In the real economy we live in now employers are giving pay increases that are many multiples of 0.8% just to get staff. We need to see it in perspective. I acknowledge it is an additional cost and not an irrelevant additional cost.

Senator Conway made a very valid point that when the national minimum wage was established in 2000, it was at 60% of the median wage. There were many more people on it, though, as a result, but it was slightly above 60% of median wage. While the national minimum wage kept up with inflation and increased ahead of inflation since 2000, it did not keep up with average or median earnings. That is what I want to put right over the next couple of years.

Section 9 is there to ensure that nothing prevents an employer from offering a better sick pay scheme, whether it is by decision or collective agreement. To put it on the record of this House again, as Members will know, illness benefit will work by a person getting three days of statutory leave from his or her employer and on day 4 illness benefit from the State kicks in. From 2024 onwards, there will be savings for the State as illness benefit kicks in later. We intend to recycle those savings to improve illness benefit and make it more linked to people's earnings because at the moment illness benefit is very low. I cannot remember the exact figure but it is something like €200 per week and can be even less than that. We would like to use the savings that arise from this scheme to the social insurance fund to improve illness benefit and make it a bit more linked to previous earnings than it is now.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 21 June 2022.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 5.12 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 5.17 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 5.12 p.m. and resumed at 5.17 p.m.