Explainer: COVID-19 and Changes to Work

UPDATE: changes have been announced to certain payments from the Government at this time of writing (10th June 2020). These are the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme and what changes you may expect when returning to work.

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 have they 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 working and I think I might have COVID-19?

If you are feeling any symptoms associated with COVID-19 whilst you’re still in work, then it is important that you phone your GP right away and self-isolate. 

This can be an anxious situation to be in, especially for autistic people, who are so often prone to anxiety-related health conditions. If you feel that you may have been exposed to COVID-19, then you need to communicate directly with your manager as soon as possible

The best way to do this is to directly telephone your manager, so as to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, even if you are not feeling any symptoms. 

Using the telephone is often challenging for some autistic people due to the unpredictability and absence of visual social cues. It is important that they have support during the exchange. 

A trusted person, such as a friend, family member, colleague, or a carer, or a social worker would be ideal for an autistic person to have with them as they explain their situation to their manager. If the autistic person is especially nervous or struggling to communicate, then one of the individuals outlined could speak on their behalf.

It is also a good idea to have everything in writing. Sending an email explaining your situation in full to your manager along with a telephone call is the best way to do this. Make sure to send it after you have spoken directly to your manager as soon as possible.

If you have already been in touch with a healthcare professional about a possible COVOD-19 diagnosis, explain this to your manager and provide them with your healthcare provider’s details. This is to ensure that not only is the advice genuine but so that everyone knows what the plan is and that self-isolation is the best course of action to take for all.

If you are unsure about what your entitlements as an employee are in this situation, you can find a detailed list on the Workplace Relations Commission’s website.

Alternatively, if you are unsure how the changing situation around COVID-19 has affected your particular job, you can check with your workplace’s trade union representative (if it has one).

You can also get in touch with the the Free Legal Advice Centre, an independent organisation that provides free and confidential information to the general public on a range of legal issues, including employment and disability.

 

What if I have a diagnosis of COVID-19 or have been advised to self-isolate? 

Enhanced Illness Benefit

If you have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been advised to self-isolate by a medical professional, then you are entitled to claim for the Enhanced Illness Benefit

To fully qualify for this payment, you must be confined to your home or a medical facility (such as a clinic or a hospital). You must also be absent from work and not receiving payment from your employer.

This allowance is paid at a rate of €305 per week. It is paid for a maximum of two weeks for individuals who are self-isolating but do not have a certified COVID-19 diagnosis; if you are diagnosed, then it will cover the duration of your absence from work.

For further information on the Enhanced Illness Benefit, click here.

For further information and advice about how to cope during self-isolation, check out our social story.

 

What if I’m employed or self-employed?

COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

If you are employed, and your employer has had to reduce your hours or let you go because of reduced business linked to the outbreak, then you are entitled to claim for the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment. Students who have lost employment, as well as people who are self-employed or work on a casual and or part-time basis, are also eligible for this. 

To fully qualify for this Payment, you must be aged between 18 and 66 years.

As of 8th June 2020, the Payment will now be split into two rates of allowance

The two payments will be linked to the hours you worked in your job prior to the pandemic.

•   If you have been working full-time (around 30 hours or more per week – or equivalent pro-rata), you will be paid €350 per week;

•   If you were working part-time (under 30 hours per week), then you will be entitled to receive €203 per week (including students, or people who work 2 or 3-day weeks), which is the equivalent of Jobseeker’s Payment. 

The Payment for both rates has been extended until 10th August 2020 (subject to change). If you are able to return to work before then, you should notify the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as soon as possible to update them on your circumstances.

If you need further income support afterwards, you will likely be asked to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance during this period, even if the layoff is temporary.

The Pandemic Unemployment Payment was always designed to be a short-term measure to help you manage your finances, provide a degree of income security and to encourage you to stay at home during the peak of the pandemic. Whilst the payments have been extended, that remains the case.

Bear in mind that the Pandemic Unemployment Payment is taxable, which means that you may be liable to pay tax on the payment in January 2021, or the payment may reduce your overall tax credits for 2021. 

It may be a prudent idea to set a portion of the Payment aside right now to meet any changes to income you may face in the New Year.

For further information on the COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment, click here

Short Time Work Support Payment

If you have been placed on reduced hours, you are also entitled to claim for the Short Time Work Support Payment. This does not extend to those who are self-employed. 

This payment is a form of Jobseeker’s Benefit and is an income support payment if you have been temporarily placed on a shorter working week. 

To fully qualify for this payment, you must satisfy the main PRSI conditions for Jobseeker’s Benefit and you must be working for three days a week at most, having been previously employed full-time.

For further information on the Short Time Work Support Payment, click here.

Jobseeker’s Benefit for the Self-Employed

If you are self-employed, then you may be eligible to claim for the Jobseeker’s Benefit for the Self-Employed.

To fully qualify for this payment, you must meet several important criteria points. These involve proving that you are capable of working, actively seeking employment, and are able to prove that you are genuinely out of work.

If you don’t qualify for Jobseeker’s Benefit for the Self-Employed, you may qualify for a Jobseeker’s Allowance.

This payment’s rates will vary depending on our PRSI contributions and on how much your average earnings are per week. A full payment will provide you with a full weekly allowance of €203, along with additional rates if you have dependents, such as young children.

For further information on the Jobseekers’ Benefit for the Self-Employed, click here.

You can apply for Jookseekers’ Allowance at MyWelfare.ie.

Maternity 

The Government has advised pregnant women to apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, if their employers have no available work or they can’t pay them. This applies both when your due date is within 16 weeks and if it is more than 16 weeks from the last day of your employment.

Maternity Leave applications should be sent in for as normal.

If you are due to finish your statutory maternity leave (paid or unpaid) but can’t return to work because of the pandemic, then you can still apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Payment from when you are due to return to work (your maternity leave end date).

Returning to Work

If you’re returning to work for the first time since the outbreak in March, there may be changes to your work environment or work routine, as your employer may have to comply with changes to Health and Safety standards on foot of COVID-19.

Your manager should inform you of any changes being made to your job tasks, work uniform or work environment to help keep you healthy and safe when you’re at work.

Depending on the kind of work you do, you may even be able to work from home. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer if you have any questions around these changes. Check out our COVID-19 Workplace Health and Safety explainer which can give a sense of what changes to expect.

 

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 Wage Subsidy Scheme (this has been extended to 10th August 2020).  

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 will provide employers with a Refund Scheme. You will be asked, as part of this Scheme, to keep employees on your payroll and pay them an amount of €203. Once you make payroll returns to Revenue, you will be refunded the €203 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. You might wish to use Carol Gray’s social story to do so. 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 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:

Brothers of Charity

Chime Ireland

Down Syndrome Ireland

Enable Ireland

Family Carers Ireland

Gheel Autism Services

Inclusion Ireland

Irish Wheelchair Association

Pieta House

Saint Michael’s House

The Samaritans

Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Western Care Association

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