UNEMPLOYED workers will take up new positions in local authorities from early next year, carrying out environmental works including drainage schemes and outdoor maintenance.
The Government plans to pay up to 3,000 workers an additional €20 a week for up to 22 months to carry out services which city and county councils cannot currently deliver, the Irish Independent has learned.
Some 351 people have already been referred for garda vetting under the 'Gateways Initiative', and the first placements have already commenced.
The initiative has been agreed with unions, and is designed to support councils in meeting local demands for improvements. Workers who refuse to engage in the initiative face the prospect of social welfare payments being reduced, or having payments suspended.
"We're working with the Minister for Social Protection to develop opportunities," Environment Minister Phil Hogan said. "We have 1,500 places already identified in local authorities for people to be employed on a social employment scheme to do certain environment works.
"The Department of Social Protection will provide the people. It's particularly to deal with people from the construction sector, and they cannot displace existing jobs.
"The payment will be €20 per week on top of the dole. It's training for people through local authorities who would not be gainfully occupied otherwise, and it will keep their skills going in preparation for the upturn."
Local authorities will be required to profile the skill set of the individuals referred, and suitable work opportunities will be identified. Each participant will work for an average of 19.5 hours a week, and the placement will last for 22 months.
They will receive the same statutory annual leave and public holiday entitlement as other employees. Once the placement has been completed, they cannot participate in Gateway again for three years, and additional training will be provided where required to help workers develop new skills.
The scheme is designed for the long-term unemployed and workers must be on the live register for at least two years. Some €2m has been allocated from the Dormant Accounts Fund for next year, to support training and purchase equipment needed. The money will also be used to purchase materials required to complete the works. Among the types of projects which could be funded include village-enhancement schemes, landscaping or library work. Workers could also act as tourism ambassadors, or work in the control of animals.
First announced in Budget 2013, the initiative is part of the Government's Pathways to Work scheme. The Department of Social Protection will be responsible for linking participants with local authorities.
The scheme, which has already started in Louth and will be rolled out to Limerick early next year, will lead to concerns about why people will be paid the equivalent of €1 an hour to work for a local authority.
However, sources said the works would not displace existing staff and were designed to help retrain and provide skills to the long-term unemployed.
Unemployed people eligible for the scheme will be identified and contacted by the Department of Social Protection, and unless they have "good reason" to refuse the offer of a placement, they can have their social welfare payments reduced or terminated.
People can also take up other part-time work, and may terminate their place if offered a full-time job.
Limerick county and city councils are awaiting garda clearance following the completion of a recruitment process and four other counties have scheduled interview dates.
Sufficient resources are available to provide for 3,000 placements. So far, in the initial phase of the rollout, just over 1,500 places have been identified in 29 councils.
The Department of the Environment said progress had been "slower than anticipated" because of ongoing staff restructuring in county and city councils, and operational matters -- including securing funding, garda vetting, identifying works and arranging supervisors.