Six crucial employment law changes in 2021 – advice by Alan Hickey, Service and Operations Director at Peninsula

There is no doubt that 2020 has been a hectic and challenging year for employers. Now, with 2021 just around the corner, here are six key developments businesses must be aware of.

1.     Redundancy risks

As COVID-19 restrictions are hopefully relaxed next year, the income protection measures put in place by the State will also come to an end. The Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme is scheduled to end on 31 March 2021. Employers should plan for steps they are going to take when they no longer have this support from the Government. Redundancies may have to be considered; however, they should also be prepared to look at alternative options.

Similarly, the suspension of the employee right to claim redundancy after a specified period of lay-off or short-time is also due to expire at the end of March next year. Once this is lifted, employers may face an influx of redundancy payment requests from any employees that have been on a period of lay-off or short-time.

2.     Right to disconnect

While we would argue that there is already an employee right to disconnect under the Organisation of Working Time Act, both Sinn Féin and the Labour Party have introduced private members bills that would give remote employees a statutory right to disconnect. The Government has also established an Interdepartmental Group to develop a national remote working strategy. With the recent mass migration to working from home caused by the pandemic, we expect to see more Government guidelines on managing remote workers and possibly legislative changes.

3.     Right to request flexible working

The Government must transpose an EU Directive on Work Life Balance into Irish law by August 2022. This directive will give employees a right to request flexible working conditions to manage parenting and caring responsibilities. Working life has changed for the vast majority of workers in 2020, and the Government will likely include the requirements of this directive in any changes to employment legislation.

4.     Health & safety duties owed to homeworkers

The Government recently updated the Work Safely Protocol. While the main focus of the guidance document is preventing transmission of the virus in the workplace, it also highlights that a working from home policy should be developed in collaboration with employees. It seems likely that any legislation around the right to disconnect will also include more up to date legal obligations reflecting the health and safety challenges of managing remote workers. This could lead to more costs for employers who are responsible for ensuring that the employee’s home workstation is ergonomic.

5.     Statutory Sick Pay

The Government has launched a consultation process which could end with the introduction of statutory sick pay before the end of 2021. As the law stands, employers have no legal obligation to pay employees who are absent through illness. A new statutory sick pay scheme requiring an employer contribution would introduce another employer expense at a time when small to medium sized businesses are already under extreme pressure. It will be interesting to see the results of the consultation process, which remains open for submissions until 18 December.

6.     Harassment risks moving online

The mass migration to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has also changed the types of harassment risks employers are exposed to. With such a large number of staff working from the comfort of their own homes, dressed in casual clothes and communicating online, there is a risk that the content of communications on Zoom or Teams becomes inappropriate or offensive. Exclusionary workplace bullies can also exploit online working arrangements. A bully may be more likely to limit access to information or exclude victims from important meetings when remote working arrangements are in place. If organisations haven’t revised their anti-harassment policy in recent years, it may be time to recirculate a more up-to-date version.

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