The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak has caused a great deal of uncertainty in people’s usual routines and their daily lives. This is especially felt in how and where we all work. For some, this may mean they are on less hours, or they are working from home, or they have lost their jobs entirely.
Autistic people’s lives are particularly vulnerable to the disruption caused by these situations. Sudden changes in routine are among the biggest sources of anxiety and distress for many on the spectrum, regardless of their age. As few as 20% of autistic people are estimated to be in long-term employment. For many of these individuals, they will often be working part-time roles or are self-employed. The ongoing emergency has meant that business activities across different sectors have reduced, and that many businesses, particularly in seasonal sectors like hospitality (including bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels) and retail (i.e., shops which stock non-essential items), who would’ve considered hiring autistic people but may not be in a position right now to take on more staff.
For some businesses who operate on very narrow margins, COVID-19 may have such an adverse impact on their business that they may be forced to close their doors, either temporarily or permanently. This in turn will have a knock-on impact on living standards in our community and across Ireland, with many people seeing a reduction or a total loss of their income over the coming months. Over the next several months, more people may experience similar changes to their working lives as we know more about COVID-19’s long-term impact. The Government has prepared a number of emergency social protection payments for those who have been directly impacted by COVID-19. This page explains what these payments are, who may be eligible, and what other supports you may be entitled to.
What if I’m an employer and I have an autistic employee?
Many employers will have put workplace accommodations in place to meet their autistic employees’ support needs. Several of these accommodations may be directly supported by the Department of Social Protection, such as the Employee Retention Grant, the Workplace Equipment Adaptation Grant, or the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme.
AsIAm would encourage all employers to continue these supports throughout the emergency’s duration. There has been no indication of changes to any of these supports’ funding from the Department whilst the Government deals with the pandemic.
For those who have had to reduce hours and or lay off staff, the Government have provided the employment wage subsidy scheme. This will allow you keep employees on your payroll and pay them an amount (which may vary based on your eligibility). Once you make payroll returns to Revenue, you will be refunded the amount for each employee whose work you have had to make changes to.
If you suspect an autistic employee may be infectious or showing COVID-19 symptoms, you must follow public health advice, and make reasonable accommodations for them, if you are requesting them to self-isolate. When discussing this, remain calm and do so at a time which is least stressful for both parties, ideally on a one-to-one basis. Some courses of action you could take may include:
• Compassionate Leave;
• Rearranging Parental Leave;
• Working remotely from home;
• Allowing the staff member to ‘work-up’ any time taken at a future date;
• Allowing the employee to avail of annual leave entitlements.
Ask your employee which arrangement suits them best and actively listen to any suggestions they may have themselves. What is important here is to help establish a new routine so as to alleviate any anxiety and uncertainty.
For those who have not yet had any conversation about supporting their autistic employee(s), we would advise preparing to discuss their needs in the long-term, for as soon as the situation stabilises and routines returns to normal.
It may be particularly important to have a conversation around any changes you are planning to make to their work routine in advance of their return (like social distancing, staggered work hours or changes to work duties); particularly with regard to their health and safety, so these changes do not come as a surprise when they resume work.
These changes, which can be mandated and enforced by the Health and Safety Authority, vary from workplace to workplace according to the area’s size, their constituent industry and any costs involved.
If your workplace intends to implement a long-term remote working policy, it may be equally important to let autistic employees know about putting such a policy in place, as any changes to the way they work will have implications on their health and safety, but they may also benefit from changes to their work brought forward by such a scheme.
In any event, AsIAm would advise providing your autistic employees with information about additional income supports they can apply for. You can find a full list of these on MyWelfare.ie.
A full briefing on the COVID-19 Employer Refund Scheme is available here at Gov.ie.
What if I’m a Parent of an autistic child?
Parents are entitled, with six weeks’ notice, to take up to 22 weeks unpaid parental leave to care for each child up to twelve years of age (or 16 years of age in the case of a child with a disability).
Parents are also entitled, with six weeks’ notice, to take parents’ leave of two weeks for each child under one year of age born on or after 1st November 2019. Those taking parents leave are eligible to apply for Parent’s Benefit from the Department of Social Protection. Applications can be made online at MyWelfare.ie or by post.
At present, there are no specific payments for people who cannot work because they have to look after children who are off school. The Government has asked employers to be as flexible as possible in allowing staff time off to look after their children or other members of their families. This could include:
• Offering paid compassionate leave;
• Allowing you to work from home;
• Altering your shifts, so that you can coordinate caring between you and your partner, or another person;
• Allowing you to rearrange holidays;
• Allowing you to take paid time off that you can work back at a later time.
If you have no income while you are caring at home you may be able to claim Supplementary Welfare Allowance.
Family Carers Ireland has produced an Emergency Care Plan booklet. This booklet will allow carers to make contingency plans for others to take up their role should they need to self isolate.
What if I’m already receiving welfare payments?
The Department of Social Protection is making the necessary preparations to ensure that there will be no disruption to welfare payments. People currently in receipt of a welfare payment will continue to receive this payment in accordance with their current entitlements if they are required to self-isolate or are diagnosed with COVID-19. There is no need for the people concerned to take any action. Payments to people who collect their payments in person at post offices but, due to illness or self-isolation, are unable to do so on the due date, will be held over until they can next attend a post office. Alternative payment arrangements (for example, transfer into a bank account, collection by an agent) are also available and can be agreed, on request, with any person who is affected by COVID-19.
What if I’m a Carer and I can no longer support an autistic person with extensive needs because I’m self-isolating?
We understand that this is a difficult and uncertain time, particularly when you’re responsible for the welfare of others. There is a lot to think about and the constant streams of news can be a bit overwhelming.
If you are a carer and become unwell and are unable to support someone with extensive needs, we would advise getting in touch with any of the following organisations and services: