Confusion abounds on amounts, timing and methods of payment
A new bank holiday and a 30c increase in the minimum wage are being considered as part of a package of Budget measures aimed at rewarding frontline workers for their efforts during the pandemic.
The move could mean the number of annual bank holidays would increase to 10, while the minimum wage would rise to €10.50 an hour.
The Government is examining a range of measures to reward workers from across society who worked on the front line during lockdowns.
It comes amid mounting tensions over the promise of a pandemic bonus for thousands of workers, which would cost taxpayers €1bn.
It was hoped a one-off bonus could be offered, either a cash lump sum or additional leave days, for frontline workers.
However, ministers now fear it will pit worker against worker in the clamour to receive financial or other recognition, such as extra holidays, for special work done and sacrifices made.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar suggested the payment be made to more than just health workers – citing Revenue staff and other civil servants as deserving such recognition.
But Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath has intervened to warn the cost could spiral far beyond the original official estimate of €377m, to as much as €1bn.
That is the exact figure Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe revealed yesterday as the volume of funds which he has earmarked for special projects in the Budget he will unveil on October 12.
Confusion grew last night as it became unclear who would get the bonus, what it would entail, how it would be paid, and whether it could be delivered in the upcoming Budget.
Labour leader Alan Kelly accused the Government of going back on long-standing promises of special rewards for workers.
Mr Varadkar insisted the Government remained committed to the Covid bonus, saying: “We will engage with the unions and worker representatives around recognition bonus for staff who did the extra mile, went out of their way, during the pandemic.
“We want to do it, they deserve it and I think the public wants us to do it as well.
I’m not sure exactly how it would be done.
"It would be better if it fell into this financial year than next year, but that’s not the most important thing.”
Mr Varadkar said calculating the bonus in a fair way was “complicated”.
“There were people who put in enormous extra hours, like you mentioned, but there are also people who didn’t. That mightn’t have been through any fault of their own, it was just that their services were reduced or shut down and they weren’t redeployed.
“So calculating it in a way that is fair is not straightforward. We don’t want to create a division between some sectors and others within the public service, and we don’t want to create a division within sectors either.”
He said he could not provide exact timelines for the bonus, adding: “This doesn’t have to be a Budget Day decision, but it might be.”
Public Expenditure Minister Mr McGrath said a nurses’ Covid bonus claim for 10 days’ extra holiday would cost €377m at minimum.
“Given that you would almost certainly have to involve a level of overtime and agency staff to provide the necessary cover, the costs would almost certainly exceed €500m,” Mr McGrath said.
He added that extending 10 days’ leave across the full public service the cost would be over €1bn. Mr McGrath told TDs the Government move on a pandemic bonus “has to be done in fair and inclusive way”.
He said the emphasis placed on healthcare workers was justified, but added: “There are many others across the public service who did great work – the prison service, members of the gardaí, Defence Forces, Department of Social Protection, Revenue Commissioners, all of whom continued to work along with many others in the public sector.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Government wants to reflect the contribution many people made, including retail workers, in the Budget.
“It will be challenging, but that is something that we are working towards,” he said.