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Out of office: How to survive financially if new Covid rules and U-turn on office returns sees you down pay or jobless

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The Government’s recent U-turn on the phased return to the office was a huge blow to many workers and businesses and a reminder of how quickly Covid can wreak havoc with livelihoods. Further restrictions could be on the cards given the surge in cases. For the workers still required to go into the office, new rules will force most of them to take time off work for almost a week if they’re a close contact – unless they can work from home. (Previously, fully vaccinated close contacts did not have to restrict their movements.) Furthermore, the midnight closing time now in force for licensed premises could see many nightclub and bar staff out of pocket or out of work. So with the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) closed to new applicants since July 8, is there any financial support for you if you find yourself down pay or out of work as a result of the latest rules? Here are four digouts worth knowing about.


ISOLATION PAY

Under the latest Covid rules, household contacts of confirmed Covid cases have to restrict their movements for five days. Workers who cannot work from home could find themselves docked pay as a result – particularly if they’re not then diagnosed with Covid and find themselves not entitled to sick pay for the days they were isolating.
However, workers who cannot work as a result of the five-day rule may qualify for the State’s Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit payment of €350 a week – as long as they meet the various conditions. “If someone is a close contact and needs to self-isolate for five days, they should secure the relevant documentation that will support their claim for enhanced illness benefit,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection. “The rate payable to the person is aligned to the number of days they have been certified to self-isolate or restrict their movements by their doctor or the HSE.”
The Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit payment is paid for up to two weeks if you are self-isolating – depending on the amount of time you need to isolate.

REDUCED WORKING WEEK

Workers temporarily placed on a shorter working week as a result of the ongoing crisis may qualify for short-term work support – a form of Jobseeker’s Benefit (a payment for the unemployed which is linked to an individual’s social insurance record) which compensates the worker for the days of work that have been lost.
“For example, if your working week has been reduced from a five-day work pattern to a three-day work pattern, you may receive a Jobseeker’s Benefit payment for the other two days,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection.

SICK PAY

Unpaid sick leave is one of the biggest issues being faced by those who have returned to the office since – and indeed before – September, according to Richard Grogan, employment law solicitor with Richard Grogan & Associates. Many workers have had to take time off work because they have either contracted Covid – or because they have a suspected case of Covid. Where these workers cannot work from home, their income could be down substantially for the time they are off work, particularly if they don’t qualify for sick pay in work – or if they’ve already exhausted their sick pay allowance.
These issues around sick pay will continue for many of the workers who can continue to go into the office under the latest rules. Your employer does not have to pay you when you cannot come to work because you are sick with Covid-19, unless it is part of your contract of employment.
“An awful lot of smaller employers don’t have sick pay schemes,” said Grogan. “Even medium-sized employers may only have a sick pay scheme that covers between five and 10 days a year. So if you were off sick with a chest infection for two weeks earlier on in the year, and you now become sick with Covid, you’ll have no paid sick leave to take if there’s a 10-day sick leave limit in your job as you have already used up your full 10 days. That causes problems if you have to put food on the table and pay your mortgage or rent.”
However, you may qualify for the State Covid-19 enhanced illness benefit of €350 a week if you are off sick with Covid-19. The weekly rate is paid for up to 10 weeks if you have been diagnosed with Covid 19. All employees (apart from public sector workers) and the self-employed are eligible for this payment – as long as they meet the various conditions of the benefit. You must, for example, be confined to your home or a medical facility and you must be absent from work. This benefit will be particularly useful to those who don’t get any sick pay in their job as without it, they may have no income.
It’s worth noting that although you generally have no legal right to be paid while you are on sick leave from work, this is due to change from 2022. The Government has announced a new statutory sick pay scheme where a worker will be able to get up to three days’ paid sick leave (up to specific limits) in 2022, five days in 2023, seven days in 2024 and 10 days in 2025.

OUT-OF-WORK PAY

It’s nine days since working-from-home resumed – with employees asked to work from home unless it is necessary to attend the office in person.
Those who have lost their job because working from home isn’t an option – or because the latest Covid rules have forced the company they work for to shut its doors – may qualify for the Jobseeker’s Allowance (a means-tested payment for the unemployed) or Jobseeker’s Benefit.
An individual could qualify for a payment of up to €203 a week under the Jobseeker’s Allowance or Jobseeker’s Benefit, while the rate could be up to €337.70 a week for a couple. For a couple with two children, the Jobseeker’s rate is up to €420.70 a week.
There may be people who are already in receipt of a social welfare payment such as the disability allowance or one family payment and who are working, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection. “If their income is reduced because their employment is reduced, they should request a review of their social welfare payment,” she said.
Unless you have been continuously receiving the PUP since before it was closed to new applications on July 8, you cannot now claim the PUP. At one stage, PUP paid as much as €350 a week to those who lost their jobs due to Covid. The Government however is now phasing out the PUP, and weekly rates have been cut, with the highest rate of PUP now €250 a week.
Many of those who lose their jobs due to the ongoing Covid crisis would find it somewhat easier to make ends meet on a PUP of €250 a week, rather than Jobseeker’s of €203 a week.
Asked by this paper if there were any plans to reinstate the PUP, the Department of Social Protection spokeswoman said: “In some cases, Jobseeker payments will be higher than the PUP. PUP was introduced as an emergency response in the context of an almost complete shutdown of the economy which meant that people did not have alternative employment options. The situation now is very different to March 2020 – the economy is open with employers hiring and seeking new staff. The economy has continued to re-open since the summer and PUP remains in place on a graduated basis until February for workers who have not yet returned to work.”
Let’s hope the situation here continues to be different to March 2020. It certainly feels like we’re heading in the wrong direction with Covid again.

Post-lockdown office dilemmas:  parking apps, annual leave & Taxsaver tickets

Can I still take my annual leave even though they’re short-staffed at work and need me?

The right to take annual leave is an issue which has cropped up in recent months, according to Richard Grogan, of Grogan & Associates. “Some people who returned to the office and who have booked holidays for a month or two or more down the line were told they can’t take their holidays – even though the holiday had been approved,” said Grogan. “This is often an issue where places are understaffed. However, once an employer has approved a holiday, it can’t take it away.” 

 

What are the chances of a Taxsaver ticket for hybrid workers in the New Year?

The Taxsaver scheme – where workers get tax relief on the price of public transport tickets – can significantly cut commuting costs. However, annual and monthly Taxsaver tickets (the only ones currently available) don’t make much financial sense if you’re working in the office for no more than a few days a week or indeed a month. In response to the change in commuting patterns over the pandemic, the National Transport Authority (NTA) is evaluating a proposal for the development of a flexible Taxsaver ticket which would suit those who use public transport only occasionally. “The process to be able to implement such a product is technically demanding,” said Anne Graham, chief executive of the NTA, in a response to a recent parliamentary question. “While it is unlikely we will be able to launch anything this year, we are hopeful of bringing something forward early next year.”

Will I still be able to pay for parking through the app I used pre-pandemic when I return to office?

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The parking app you used before the pandemic may no longer be available and you may need to change to another app. For example, those who used the ParkbyText (PBT) app for Luas car parks before the pandemic must change to APCOA Connect if they wish to continue paying for their Luas parking with an app.

The PBT app was discontinued in November 2020.and although it is no longer available, customers must pay a €5 fee to close their account with that app – though that €5 closing account charge is waived if customers open an APCOA Connect ewallet account in advance of closing their PBT account.

When asked by this paper why customers were being charged a fee to close an account for an app which is no longer available (unless they open an APCOA Connect account), a spokesman for APCOA said: “At the time [of the PBT app being discontinued], we notified all PBT account holders that this change was happening. Under the PBT account terms and conditions which customers signed up to, there is a €5 closing fee applicable.”

 

Do I need to cancel my Dublin Bikes subscription?

Be sure to cancel your annual subscription if you subscribed to Dublin Bikes and no longer use the service – otherwise your subscription will auto-renew and you will be charged for it. The annual fee is now €35. You can opt out of the automatic renewal via the Dublin Bikes app, website or call centre.


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