Sick leave in Ireland

31 July 2020

Sick leave is a difficult topic for many businesses to deal with. And it can prove contentious between an employer and a workforce. 

So, sick leave in Ireland is a topic that features employment laws you must understand and follow. But, also, your staff have responsibilities they need to adhere to. 

The situation has a new element to consider due to the coronavirus pandemic, with areas to consider around pay and the amount of time staff will have off. 

In this guide, we explain what you need to implement and consider across your business. 

What is sick leave?

Standard sick leave is an absence from work due to illness when an employee would normally be working.  

Sick leave entitlement should be clearly set out in the contract of employment.

Ultimately, it’s up to you as a business owner to decide how to define the terms of your sickness policy. So, how many sick leave days per year are there for employees? As many as you designate. It’s a call you need to make carefully as too little latitude on absences through illness may demotivate employees, while too much could lead to employees taking advantage.  

But you must provide all members of staff with written details on how your procedures work. Normally, you can include such information in their contract of employment.

Sick leave and pay--an overview

Employees have no legal right to receive any sick pay from your business. But you can offer it. 

There’s financial support for staff if they apply to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection (DEASP) to request Illness Benefit. 

It’s for staff who can’t work due to sickness. They must be under the age of 66 and have coverage from social insurance (PRSI) to be able to make a claim.

As an example, many businesses will operate an absence policy such as the below:

  • The sick pay scheme begins once an employee completes (for instance) their probation period. 
  • If an employee is then off sick, they’ll receive the designated pay you’re offering (if you choose to do this). 
  • After a certain time, half pay sick leave will come into effect. That’s half the amount of the full pay. 
  • If the absence develops into a long-term scenario, this will become an unpaid leave situation once the absence goes beyond your contractually set period. 

But, in contrast, what is unpaid sick leave? This is a period of time where an employee is off work ill, but doesn’t receive any sick pay or wages. Again, in Ireland it’s totally up to you  as an employer to decide whether or not to offer pay during illness-related absences. 

Similarly, you may wonder if mental health issues qualify for your policy. For example, is stress leave sick leave? While it’s not, essentially, a physical illness, it can have serious consequences on your workforce if not managed correctly and employees may need your support if they are experiencing stress-related symptoms from their work. 

You should consider the approach your business wants to take. You may think not offering sick pay will discourage staff from taking time off due to sickness. 

However, many employees view sick pay as a perk. And if you don’t offer it, employees could head into work ill to ensure they get their full wage. 

That could lead to illness spreading in your workforce, which in the long-term can damage your productivity. 

You can balance your requirements by, for example, only offering a few annual sick days with pay. So when staff are genuinely ill, they can take the time off to recover. 

To have a sound procedure in place you can:

  • Establish clear policies and procedures for how your absence system works. 
  • Provide support, where applicable, to employees who are injured or ill.
  • Make reasonable adjustments to your working environment, if necessary, to accommodate for employees with returning to work with a disability or illness.
  • Provide a consistent and fair process for all of your workforce. For example, your stance with sick leave for casual employees should remain the same so to not discriminate between part-time and full-time staff. 

Remember, you have control over what your policy is. So you can make it as supportive as you feel necessary, given your business standards or common industry expectations.

How long can you be on sick leave?

The amount you allow annually is up to you. Under the 1994 Terms of Employment (Information) Act in section three, it states you must determine what your policy is within your contracts of employment. 

Most businesses will indicate what the set total of annual sick leave entitlement is. 

Of course, you can offer payment to go along with your contractual sick leave. But if you do, it is good practice to require employees to obtain a medical certificate (sick note) from a GP or hospital to support their claims of sickness. 

COVID-19 paid leave and sick leave information

Due to recent world events, the possibility of more consistent employee absences through sickness is present. 

Although lockdown measures are lifting and social distancing at work practices are in place, staff still face the risk of infection. 

The Irish government has indicated that if an employee becomes sick due to coronavirus, or displays symptoms, they must self-isolate. 

But should self-isolation be recorded as special leave with pay or sick leave? If employees experience symptoms of coronavirus, they should not come to work. This absence from work is considered sick leave and employees should be directed to the relevant section of your contract of employment.

So, is self-isolation a sick leave day? Yes, and again the terms of your employment contract apply in this case. Do note that the government is paying employees an enhanced Illness Benefit during the pandemic.  Employees who are required to self-isolate should be directed to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. 

If you’re now thinking, “What if an employee contracts COVID-19 whilst on special leave with pay?” If your employment contract allows for some type of special or specific contractual leave and the employee contracts coronavirus while on this leave, your sick leave policy should be adhered to from the date of the employee’s illness. During this time, a doctor must medically diagnose the employee. 

However, if you don’t pay for sickness-related absences, employees can claim the enhanced illness benefit for COVID- 19 absences. This is from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

We have further advice about reopening after coronavirus to help you manage issues such as this in the challenging months ahead. 

Managing sickness and maternity leave

If an employee has to take sick leave before their maternity leave in Ireland and it’s in the final four weeks before childbirth, then the employee can opt to start maternity leave immediately (normally, this is the decision of the employee). 

If the sickness is earlier in their pregnancy than the four-week period before the due date, then going on sick leave before maternity leave will follow the same process as with other members of staff and you should adhere to your own sick leave policy. 

An overview of holiday time during sick leave

There are common questions from employers about this. For example, can an employee use annual leave when sick? In theory they could but employees are entitled to four weeks paid annual leave a year and if they are sick during their annual leave, they should provide a medical certificate when they return to the workplace confirming that they were ill while on annual leave. The employee can then claim any annual leave days lost through illness at a later date.

As an employer, you can’t force a member of staff to use their annual leave to cover a period of illness. 

However, they may approach you to ask, “Can you go abroad when on sick leave?” This would be an unusual request to receive from a sick employee. If they are well enough to travel, they are likely to be well enough to work and should be using their annual leave entitlement to travel abroad.

The employee may prefer to use their holiday pay for sick leave, rather than take a period of unpaid leave. This raises the question of whether or not the employee is using their annual leave for rest and recreation purposes as required under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997.

But does annual leave accrue on sick leave? Yes, from 1st August 2015 staff can now do this. Under the Workplace Relations Act 2015, the changes are: 

  • Where an employee is absent from work that absence counts as working time where it’s covered by a medical certificate from a registered medical practitioner.
  • Where an employee is unable to take all or part of their annual leave during a leave year due to a medically certified illness, they’ll still be permitted to take annual leave for up to 15 months after the leave year has ended.
  • If an employee’s employment is terminated during the 15-month period, the employee has entitlement to payment in lieu of any such outstanding annual leave.

The change came about in the European cases of Stringer and Others v H.M. Revenue & Customs [C-520/06] and Schultz-Hoff [C-350/06]. 

Using sick leave during notice period

If an employee is set to leave your business, staff may wonder if they can use sickness days during this time. 

If their service with you is over a set period, then they can take sick leave during their entire notice period--if they’re genuinely ill. 

They’ll follow the normal sick procedures you have during this time. 

An overview of CE scheme sick leave

The Community Employment (CE) programme/scheme helps to bring individuals out of long-term unemployment. It does this through offering temporary or part-time jobs. 

CE employees must work 19.5 hours a week. But they also have entitlement to a total of 56 hours (that’s seven days) of medically certified sick leave.

Although that’s within a set 52 week period (one calendar year). 

Car allowance during sick leave

If you’re offering a car allowance to your employee and they become ill, then you can discontinue the payments after a defined period of illness-related absence provided there is a clear statement in the employment contract regulating this type of situation.

In the absence of contractual provisions, custom and practice will apply and you should be careful to avoid unequal treatment.  

Need our help? 

If you need assistance with staff sick leave, especially during the international pandemic, then you can call us for immediate assistance on:1890 252 923

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