The Government has launched a consultation process with a view to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme for workers by the end of next year.

There is currently no legal obligation on employers in Ireland to pay workers when they are ill, though some employers do provide for sick pay on a voluntary basis in the individual contract of employment.

However, many other workers, particularly lower-paid employees in precarious work, may feel obliged to work while ill to avoid loss of earnings.

The issue has come into sharp focus since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic amid concerns that some workers fearing financial loss may continue to work and spread the virus because they cannot afford to quarantine.

To encourage workers to isolate when required, the State has introduced the Covid-19 Enhanced Illness Benefit of €350 per week, though this still leaves many workers experiencing a shortfall in income.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar noted that Ireland is one of only a small number of European countries where there is no legal obligation on employers to provide sick pay.

"This needs to change and I am committed to introducing a statutory sick pay scheme that works for employees and employers as quickly as possible," Mr Varadkar said.

He acknowledged that 2020 had been a difficult year for employers dealing with Covid-19 restrictions and Brexit.

"The scheme must be designed so that it protects employees, particularly low-paid and vulnerable workers, but it also needs to be fair and affordable for employers, many of whom have faced great difficulties this year," he said.

The closing date for submissions is 18 December.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions has urged all stakeholders to make submissions to the consultation process.

General Secretary Patricia King said it had taken a pandemic to expose the big failings in how workers were protected against loss of income, adding that the lack of a legal entitlement to sick pay from an employer was one of the most "glaring" examples. 

"As a result, up to half of the labour force, including hundreds of thousands of low-paid essential workers, don't receive sick pay and face being financially compelled to work when unwell," she said.

Congress Social Policy Officer Laura Bambrick highlighted the risk of virus spread, saying "when sick workers stay home they reduce the spread of infection and the risk of workplace accidents; they protect others."

She said that introducing mandatory sick pay would be a "lasting legacy of the pandemic and bring Ireland in to line with basic workers' rights in the rest of Europe."

Meanwhile, employment lawyer Richard Grogan said he expects many employees with underlying health issues who have difficulties returning to work, to take unfair dismissal actions as a result of calls from employers for them to return to work in Ireland. 

He said many non-Irish nationals who left offices here earlier in the year decided to work remotely in their home country. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Claire Byrne, Mr Grogan said he expects many unfair dismissal actions from those who have difficulties in returning to Ireland, including those who have underlying health issues and do not want to travel. 

He said that many of these employees are likely to be supported by equality rights legislation in claiming they have a disability and that is impacting their decision.