Six crucial Irish employment law changes in 2021

Alan Hickey

January 06 2021

There’s no doubt that 2020 was a hectic and challenging year for employers.

Lockdowns and restrictions changed the way we work, forcing employers to think on their feet. Many had to assess their workforces and make tough decisions. Others, where possible, set employees up to work from home, an arrangement that may remain in place going forward.

With 2021 underway, here are six key employment law developments businesses must be aware of.

1.   Redundancy risks

COVID-19 restrictions may relax later this year. If so, income protection measures put in place by the State will also come to an end.

The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme is due to end on March 31st. Employers should begin to plan for when they no longer have this support from the Government. Many may have to consider redundancies, although alternative options are worth investigating.

The suspension of the employee right to claim redundancy after a specified period of lay-off or short-time is also due to expire at the end of March. This could lead to an influx of redundancy payment requests from affected employees.

2.   Right to disconnect

We would argue that there’s already an employee right to disconnect under the Organisation of Working Time Act.

Nevertheless, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party have introduced private members bills that would give remote employees a statutory right to disconnect.

Elsewhere, the Government recently established an Interdepartmental Group to develop a national remote working strategy. The Workplace Relations Commission is also seeking submissions on the right to disconnect.

With many employees working from home, more guidelines and legislative changes may follow.

3.   Right to request flexible working

The Government must transpose an EU Directive on Work-Life Balance into Irish law by August 2022. This will give employees the right to request flexible working conditions to manage parenting and caring responsibilities.

Working life changed for the vast majority of workers in 2020. The requirements of this directive will likely feature in any changes to employment legislation.

4.   Health & safety duties owed to homeworkers

The Government recently updated the Work Safely Protocol.

Its main focus is still on the prevention of virus transmission in the workplace. But, the Protocol also highlights the importance of a working from home policy.

It's likely that any legislation around the right to disconnect will also include revised legal obligations. These would reflect the health & safety challenges of managing remote workers. This could lead to more costs for employers when ensuring their employees' home workstations are ergonomic.

5.   Statutory Sick Pay

As the law stands, employers have no legal obligation to pay employees who are absent through illness.

However, the Government has launched a consultation process which could see the introduction of statutory sick pay (SSP) before the end of 2021.

Any new SSP scheme could require an employer contribution. This would add another expense at a time when SMEs are already under extreme pressure.

6.   Harassment risks moving online

The switch to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things. It's even exposed employers to new types of harassment risks.

Staff are working from the comfort of their own homes and communicating online. That increases the risk of Zoom or Teams communications becoming inappropriate or offensive.

Exclusionary workplace bullies may also exploit remote working arrangements. They may limit access to information or exclude victims from meetings.

Many businesses haven’t revised their anti-harassment policies for some time. If that includes your business, update these policies as soon as possible.

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