At the time of publication of our Insight, "Updated Work Safely Protocol May 2021", it was anticipated that it would be the Autumn at the earliest before the Government would change its advice that working from home should continue in so far as possible.
Yesterday, the Government agreed Ireland's plan for the next and final phase of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and launched the "Covid- 19: Reframing the Challenge, Continuing our Recovery and Reconnecting" plan, which can be accessed here.
The approach under this new plan entails a change from protection at the population level through regulations and restrictions to protection at a personal level, each of us taking simple measures to protect ourselves and others. This change will begin in September 2021.
Under the heading, Return to Workplaces, it is stated that - Attendance at work for specific business requirements may commence on a phased and staggered attendance basis from 20 September. Further guidance is awaited in this regard with an updated and revised Return to Work Safely Protocol which will be published in advance of the 20th September next. The Plan also sets out that employers should develop or finalise their long-term blended working and return to work policy and plans having regard to their operational requirements in line with the public health advice. In reality, employers cannot finalise any plans in the absence of the updated Protocol so that is now eagerly awaited in order that employers can finalise their plans.
Whilst public transport will return to 100% capacity as and from 1st September, the Plan outlines that businesses should facilitate staggered working arrangements to allow staff change their travel patterns to less busy times where possible.
Formal requirements/mandates for physical distancing will be removed on 22nd October next, which would remove the need for employers in most sectors to impose the 2 metre rule in the workplace, which would increase capacity on workplaces.
In terms of the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS), this will continue to be made available to businesses until the end of the year, encouraging employment and helping maintain the link between employees and employers. The current, enhanced, payment rates will be maintained for Quarter 3 at existing turnover thresholds. Specific details of the approach to be taken in Quarter 4 will be outlined in early September.
The Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) will continue to be available until February 2022. In line with the Economic Recovery Plan, the Payment is now closed to new entrants and will be gradually reduced on a tapered basis in the coming months to align it with the standard jobseekers payments. This transition commences in September 2021.
It is unlikely that many employers will simply require a "big bang" return to the office in the coming weeks. The more likely scenario is that employers will continue with their voluntary return to the office policies for now, to provide a period of re-adjustment for employees whilst longer term hybrid working policies and procedures are developed. It is important for employers to take note that legislation giving workers the right to request remote working is expected later this year and that legislation may require amendments to existing policies and procedures.
It is also important for employers to put in place a framework around the future of work and hybrid work practices, to include investment in training for line managers in relation to managing a hybrid workforce.
Interestingly, this morning, the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, commented that t is not reasonable that people would be exempt from returning to the office because they did not feel comfortable amid the pandemic and that such people will have little option legally as they must honour their contracts of employment.
The Employment Team at RDJ will be keeping a close eye on developments over the coming weeks and will keep you up to date with guidance from the Government around the return to the workplace.
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