New mothers are being locked out of accessing the State's Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme until a new government is formed.
Women looking to return to work after maternity leave in recent weeks are being excluded from the temporary wage subsidy scheme (TWSS) because they were not on their employer's payroll in January or February. These women are instead being forced onto the pandemic unemployment payment.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe has indicated the issue cannot be addressed without legislative change but that has been disputed by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, who wrote to the Taoiseach and party leaders last Friday seeking urgent action.
The Government has been referred to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission by the National Women's Council (NWCI), which says it was "discriminatory".
With the TWSS set to be extended for several months, hundreds if not thousands of women may be unable to have their wages subsidised by the State in situations where their employer is unable to pay them due to a collapse in revenues caused by the Covid-19 restrictions. It is estimated around 20,000 women a year claim maternity benefit.
Mr Donohoe has said the scheme cannot be adapted to meet the particular circumstances of individual employers or employees. Both the Green Party and Fianna Fail, who are in talks with Fine Gael to form a government, have said the issue needs to be addressed as a priority.
However, any amendments to the emergency legislation which brought in the wage subsidy scheme cannot be made because there is no new government and consequently no fully constituted Seanad to pass laws.
The NWCI said women with newborn babies are now being forced into unemployment. Director Orla O'Connor said: "This is both discriminatory in my view and goes against the tide of the response to the Covid crisis and the need to maintain a link to employment to avoid future long-term unemployment.
"Women are contacting NWCI very anxious and worried about losing money in an already very difficult time for families and urgent action is needed by the Government to address this issue."
In her letter to the Taoiseach and party leaders, Ms McDonald pointed out Mr Donohoe had been able to instruct Revenue to increase the wage subsidy from 70pc to 85pc on an administrative basis "pending the necessary legislative amendment". She said the same could be done in respect of women returning from maternity leave to allow them to access the TWSS.
The Department of Finance did not say whether the minister would seek such changes, while Revenue said it was a matter for the minister. In a lengthy reply to queries, the department insisted the scheme is "being administered in a manner that is fully compliant with all relevant legislation and that no discriminatory treatment of workers arises".
It said employers are obliged to honour their obligations to employees and employment rights legislation.
Meanwhile, a row broke out between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael yesterday after it emerged that logistical planning to hold elections and referendums during the Covid-19 crisis has started.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy confirmed his department officials were preparing for referendums, possible by-elections and a possible general election that may need to happen while public health restrictions are in place.
Senior Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen, who is a member of the party's negotiating team, said that the emergence of the plan "smacks of bad faith, selfishness and putting party before country".
"No doubt they will say they had to have an alternative plan, whether that is credible or not is another thing altogether," Mr Cowen said, adding that officials' time was being wasted given any changes in how elections or referendums are run would require new laws.
Other Fianna Fail TDs reacted furiously, with Thomas Byrne branding the suggestion of polling in nursing homes being prioritised while the State is grappling with the Covid-19 crisis in homes as "utterly sick".
Tanaiste and Fine Gael deputy leader Simon Coveney and Fianna Fail deputy leader Dara Calleary spoke yesterday morning in a bid to de-escalate the row.
Fine Gael has insisted it is committed to forming a government, while a senior Fianna Fail source said talks would resume tomorrow.
Mr Murphy said his department "must prepare for every scenario" and insisted the plans were separate to the government formation process.
He said: "Covid-19 is potentially here until 2021 or longer and it is our duty to be prepared for referendums, possible by-elections and even a general election.
"This is completely separate to the government formation process under way which we are absolutely committed to. If we don't prepare, we risk far greater damage to our electoral process."
Mr Cowen said it was time for politicians to get on with the efforts to form a government.