Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Social Protection Response to COVID-19

Mel Cousins, Trinity College Dublin

The Irish social protection response to COVID-19 has consisted of two main actions:

1)    The COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP); and

2)    Illness Benefit (IB) for COVID-19 absences.

These are administered by the Department of Social Protection. There is also a Temporary COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme operated by the Revenue which is not discussed in detail here.

The COVID-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) is a weekly payment to employees and the self-employed who lost their job on (or after) March 13 due to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic.

Given the need to put in place a payment urgently, it was not possible to introduce a payment graduated according to previous earnings and a standard payment of €350 per week was initially made to all claimants. This had the result that some people whose income was less than this from employment were in receipt of a social welfare payment higher than their pay.

From Phase 3 of the Roadmap (29th June), a two-level payment structure is being introduced to link the PUP to prior earnings (coming into effect from 7 July). About 27% of PUP recipients were in receipt of gross earnings of less than €200 per week (mainly, it appears due to part-time work). For these claimants, the PUP rate will now be €203 per week - the primary rate of payment of the Jobseeker’s Benefit scheme. For all other claimants, the rate will stay at €350. Slightly more than half of those of the lower payment are women (53%).

Illness benefit (COVID-19) is a payment for employed and self-employed persons who are advised to self-isolate by a doctor or the HSE or has been diagnosed with COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Unlike standard illness benefit (IB) (which only applies to insured employees) it also applies to the self-employed. The personal rate for this payment is €350 per week, as compared with the normal Illness Benefit rate of €203.

In terms of numbers, there has been a slow but steady fall in PUP from a peak of almost 600,000 in early May 2020 to 412,900 in early July (almost half of recipients are women (49%)). This is in addition to an estimated 410,000 employees who are currently being supported by the TWSS. The partial re-opening of the economy at the end of June led to 63,000 people closing their payments (although many of these receive a final payment this week).

In addition, there are 893 people receiving a Covid-19 related Illness Benefit payment from the Department.

These payments are in addition to the 220,900 people who were on the Live Register and mainly receiving the standard jobseekers’ benefit and allowance (most not related to COVID-19).

The sector with the highest number of people in receipt of the PUP is now accommodation and food service activities (26% of the total), followed by the wholesale and retail trade (13%) and administrative and support service activities (8%). The impact of the reopening of the economy can be seen in areas such as construction. Since the peak on 5 May, the number of recipients from the construction sector has dropped by 58%, manufacturing by 45% and wholesale and retail trade by 41%.

There has been a very rapid response to the crisis in terms of social protection and DSP deserve considerable credit for both the policy response to such an urgent crisis and the ability to implement it in practice.

Of course, this was only possible due to the comprehensive IT infrastructure of the Department, the existence of personal identifiers (PPSN), and the ability to data match (particularly with Revenue data) so as to obtain information about earnings and to control claims.

However, there remain almost 900,000 people receiving support either through the social protection system or the tax subsidy and given the sluggish labour market and the deeply divided Oireachtas, introducing the payments may well prove to be the easy part.

Mel Cousins is a visiting research fellow at the  School of Social  Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin and a member of the COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory.

Suggested citation: Mel Cousins, 'The Social Protection Response to COVID-19' COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory (8 July 2020)

Return to home page of the COVID-19 Law and Human Rights Observatory.

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