Up to 500 home helps in three HSE-funded social and health and disability care bodies have voted overwhelmingly to take strike action in a dispute over pay restoration.
SIPTU Health Division Organiser Paul Bell confirmed that the staff had voted 94% in favour to support industrial action, which could take place as early as tomorrow week - the day before the election.
However, as he left talks at the Workplace Relations Commission involving SIPTU, the HSE and a number of so-called Section 39 agencies, Mr Bell confirmed that the union will defer serving formal strike notice until at least tomorrow, to allow for possible clarification between the HSE and the agencies concerned on how and when pay rises may be implemented for staff.
He said the WRC wanted 24 hours to see if the HSE and the Section 39 bodies can agree on a mechanism for payment of the outstanding pay restoration for employees, who had their pay cut in line with public servants during the recession.
The Section 39 bodies balloted included Dublin West Home Help Services, Terenure Home Care Services, and Crumlin Home Care Services.
Ballots in a number of other Section 39 agencies are ongoing.
The dispute - which could cause significant disruption to vulnerable service users - could escalate as SIPTU and Fórsa prepare to ballot thousands of workers in other so-called Section 39 bodies, funded by the HSE to deliver social and health care services.
Arriving for the talks earlier today, Mr Bell said that when the strike ballot is counted over the next 24 hours, he anticipated that the union will be going into a "full-blown work stoppage" at some sites.
He acknowledged that a strike would have a "devastating" impact on vulnerable clients, as it would see the withdrawal of certain social, health and disability care services delivered in their homes and communities on behalf of the HSE by Section 39 agencies.
He said the Section 39 staff involved in the dispute were poorly paid earning as little as €20,000 - €25,000 depending on the hours worked, adding that they had suffered pay cuts during the period of austerity while caring for some of the most vulnerable in society.
He said they have now been waiting since April 2019 for implementation of pay restoration agreed last year - and were not prepared to wait any longer.
Mr Bell said some Section 39 organisations had claimed that if they implemented the pay restoration, they would be uncompetitive when tendering for HSE funding for service provision contracts.
He argued this would trigger a race to the bottom in delivering public services based on the lowest pay and conditions which should not be happening in the taxpayers' name.
Mr Bell ruled out entering into any further talks process, saying they had already reached agreement last year following negotiations.
He noted that the workers involved in the dispute were predominantly female.
During the recession, thousands of staff in Section 39 agencies suffered pay cuts in line with public service austerity measures imposed on public servants.
However, unions say that when the crisis eased, their pay was not restored in line with State employees.
Last year, the WRC brokered an initial pay restoration agreement covering 50 sample Section 39 bodies.
However, according to SIPTU Health Division Organiser Paul Bell, many have failed to draw down additional HSE funding allocations to restore pay cuts for their employees due from last April.
Mr Bell said some workers are due increases of 7-8%.
After today's WRC talks, a second meeting of all unions representing Section 39 workers coordinated by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions will take place in the afternoon.
It is understood that Fórsa will be pressing for a protest immediately after the General Election, to send a message that workers in this sector are ramping up their campaign for "pay justice".
Fórsa sources said that as part of the union's election campaign, it has been seeking party pledges, including the issue of Section 39 funding in future public sector pay negotiations.
SIPTU's Paul Bell estimates the cost of pay restoration for the remaining organisations at around €4m.
In a statement, the HSE said there is an ongoing process in respect of Section 39 organisations that is governed by a WRC agreement and is proceeding with the assistance of the WRC.
Regarding the first phase involving 50 Section 39 organisations, the majority had been assessed, and the first restoration of pay has been paid, it said.
The HSE added that there is a "scheduled restoration" for the remainder, but that for a small number of the initial 50 bodies, further clarification is required.
It said that preparatory work in terms of the next phase of the work is under way, but no time frame is specified in the statement.