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Pandemic need for flexibility not reflected in draft laws

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Draft laws on remote working mark an attempt by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to formalise radical work practice changes that were suddenly introduced when Covid-19 struck two years ago.

Back then, the force of the pandemic was such that procedural and legal niceties were swept aside in the rush to protect public health and keep the economy turning. Many tricky questions were avoided at that time but they can be avoided no longer now that most restrictions have been lifted.

“We’ve worked through for two years basically turning a blind eye to the whole thing but that will stop,” said Richard Grogan, an employment law solicitor in Dublin.

“We’ve been working through an emergency which is slightly different. The emergency is now finishing.”

The new regime is supposed to open more choice for workers if they wish to work from home, giving them a right to seek such arrangements after six months. But in-built flexibilities for employers open scope for them to refuse permission to work remotely on 13 grounds.

Conflict appears inevitable. With key details still to be worked out, legal experts, employers and unions foresee many potential pitfalls and practical challenges when it comes to implementing the new arrangements in real time.

Many say the pandemic changed the world of work forever. A recent Central Statistics Office survey suggests that 80 per cent of workers worked remotely at some point since coronavirus struck, compared with 23 per cent before it. Two years later, with all signs suggesting the most acute phase of the health crisis has passed, these practices have bedded down to an extent that few might have expected at the outset.

Traffic and transport

Of those in employment who can work remotely, CSO data suggests 88 per cent want to continue after restrictions were removed: 28 per cent of them all the time; and 60 per cent some of the time. The proportion expressing that preference was highest at 93 per cent among respondents in counties Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow in the Dublin commuter belt, where workers often encounter long traffic delays and overcrowded public transport.

If all of that points to high demand to avail of new laws, considerable hurdles remain to be overcome. To name but a few, these centre on domestic health and safety legislation, insurance issues, European data-protection law and on the Workplace Relations Commission’s new role in determining appeals to decisions against remote working.

“A lot of the issues that are going to go to the WRC where there isn’t agreement will relate to things like health and safety of a premises or [General Data Protection Regulation] compliance or whether somebody can actually do their work remotely. The [WRC] adjudication officers aren’t trained in any of those areas,” said Grogan.

“They are not there to look at a work station and say: ‘Does it comply with health and safety? Is it possible to put a work station into this bedroom safely?’ So that’s a huge issue.”

Asked whether the WRC had enough resources, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said it would “work closely” with the institution to ensure it did. “Adjudication officers will receive appropriate information on the content of the legislation and the WRC was consulted on the heads of the Bill,” the department said.

Grogan suggested the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act might have to be “dumbed down” for remote work. “The only change you could bring in is if you’re working from home and you have an accident it’s your problem.”

Employer ‘nervousness’

He added that changes might also be required to the Civil Liability Act, which governs personal injuries. “There’s going to be a bit of nervousness overall about this,” he said, referring to employers.

But while the Government always has the option of amending Irish law, it can’t do anything on its own with European GDPR rules that impose stringent restrictions on how business uses sensitive personal data.

Neil McDonnell, chief executive of the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises business representative group, pointed to potential difficulties with remote-working where staff deal with such data. These include companies in the area of external payroll support – dealing with gross and net pay and issues like payments under maintenance agreements – and human resources support.

“There’s a few business that have been able to function remotely but reluctantly and with a lot of concern around what they’re doing,” McDonnell said.

“They basically have the innards of the company sitting on laptops. You could have someone doing HR support on their laptop in the kitchen – a bullying complaint, a harassment complaint or something of a sexual nature – and you have people who are third parties with no involvement in the companies walking past looking at that stuff.”

Employers were also concerned about the potential for claims for personal injury while working at home, McDonnell added. “We’re waiting to see something coming to court, or the Personal Injuries Assessment Board or the Health and Safety Authority.”

The plan has also come in for criticism from Fórsa, the largest public sector union, which said the “business grounds” for refusing remote working were too broad.

The union said the inclusion of grounds such as “potential negative impact on quality”, “potential negative impact on performance” and “planned structural change” would create loopholes that could allow employers turn down requests for no objective or proven reason.

“Employers must not have the option of simply turning down requests on spurious or vague grounds. Instead, they must be required to demonstrate, in a concrete way, that remote or blended arrangements are unworkable before they can turn down a request,” said Kevin Callinan, Fórsa general secretary.

Further questions are certain to arise as the law works its way through the Dáil and Seanad. The pandemic was all about ad hoc moves. Permanent arrangements are another matter entirely.

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Census 2022 – what difference does it make?

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Next Sunday, April 3rd, is Census night. Millions of people in homes countrywide will fill in page after page of questions, some of which are deeply personal and many of which might be unfamiliar.

But what it is it all about?

At a basic level, Census 2022 will be used to inform planning of public policy and services in the years ahead, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The questions will cover a range of environmental, employment and lifestyle issues, including the use of renewable energy sources in homes.

The questions will help inform policy development in the areas of energy and climate action, and the prevalence of internet access, to understand the availability of and need for internet connections and range of devices used to access the internet.

Questions also focus on changes in work patterns and will include the trend of working from home and childcare issues, while questions are also asked about the times individuals usually leave work, education or childcare, to help identify and plan for transport pattern needs locally and nationally.

Other topics covered include volunteering and the type of organisations volunteers choose to support, tobacco usage and the prevalence of smoke alarms in the home.

And of course there is a time capsule – the chance to write something which will be sealed for the next 100 years.

In this episode of In The News, the head of census administration Eileen Murphy and statistician Kevin Cunningham about what it all means for us.

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Oscars 2022: Will Smith makes Oscar history after slapping Chris Rock over joke about wife Jada Pinkett Smith | Culture

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Will Smith took the Oscar for Best Actor at last night’s 94th Academy Awards, but he also became the protagonist of the ceremony for other reasons. The night was following the script, until Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock on the stage after the latter made a joke about the shaved head of the former’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock had quipped that he was “looking forward to GI Jane 2,” in reference to her look. Pinkett Smith has revealed publicly that she has alopecia. It looked as if the moment had been planned, until Smith went back to his seat and shouted: “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”

The moment, which immediately became Oscar history but for all the wrong reasons, left the attendees with frozen smiles, and asking themselves whether it was possible that a veteran such as Smith could have lost his cool in front of tens of millions of people. After taking the prize for Best Actor, the superstar actor made a tearful apology, saying that he hoped the Academy “will invite me back.” Later on, actor Anthony Hopkins called for “peace and love,” but it was already too late. The incident overshadowed the success of CODA, which took the Oscar for Best Picture. Just like the time when Warren Beatty mistakenly named La La Land as the big winner of the night, no one will speak about anything else from last night’s awards.

At first sight, Smith’s actions looked as if they were scripted. When he first heard Rock’s joke, he laughed. But his wife was seen on camera rolling her eyes, and it was then that the actor got up onto the stage and hit Rock. When he returned to his seat he raised his voice twice to shout “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” sending a wave of unease and shock through the attending audience. The fact that he used the f-word, which is prohibited on US television, set alarm bells ringing that this was real and not a planned moment. In fact, the curse word was censored by the broadcaster, ABC, in the United States.

During a break, Smith’s PR manager approached him to speak. In the press room, which the actor skipped after collecting his prize, instructions were given to the journalists not to ask questions about the incident, Luis Pablo Beauregard reports. The next presenter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, tried to calm the situation. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this – but right now we’re moving on with love,” the rapper said.

When Smith took to the stage to collect his Best Actor award for his role as Richard Williams – the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena – in King Richard, he referred to the character as “a fierce defender of his family.” He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.”

He explained that fellow actor Denzel Washington, who also spoke to Smith during a break, had told him: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”

“I want to be a vessel for love,” Smith continued. “I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern. I want to apologize to the Academy and all my fellow nominees. […] I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams, but love will make you do crazy things,” he said. He then joked about his mother, who had not wanted to come to the ceremony because she had a date with her crochet group.

The Los Angeles Police Department released a statement last night saying that Chris Rock would not be filing any charges for assault against Smith. “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program,” the statement read. “The incident involved one individual slapping another. The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

On December 28, Pinkett Smith spoke on social media about her problems with alopecia. She stated that she would be keeping her head shaved and would be dealing with the condition with humor. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… Period!” she wrote on Instagram.



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House-price inflation set to stay double digit for much of 2022

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House-price inflation is expected to remain at double-digit levels for much of 2022 as the mismatch between what is for sale and what buyers want continues.

Two new reports on the housing market paint a picture of a sector under strain due to a lack of supply and increased demand driven by Covid-related factors such as remote working.

The two quarterly reports, one each from rival property websites myhome.ie and daft.ie, suggest asking prices accelerated again in the first quarter of 2022 as the stock of homes available for sale slumped to a new record low.

Myhome, which is owned by The Irish Times, said annual asking-price inflation was now running at 12.3 per cent.

Price

This put the median or typical asking price for a home nationally at €295,000, and at €385,000 in Dublin.

MyHome said the number of available properties for sale on its website fell to a record low of 11,200 in March, down from a pre-pandemic level of 19,000. The squeeze on supply, it said, was most acute outside Dublin, with the number of properties listed for sale down almost 50 per cent compared with pre-pandemic levels.

It said impaired supply and robust demand meant double-digit inflation is likely until at least mid-2022.

“Housing market conditions have continued to tighten,” said author of the myhome report, Davy chief economist Conall Mac Coille.

“The broad picture of the market in early 2022 remains similar to last year: impaired supply coupled with robust demand due to Ireland’s strong labour market,” he said.

Soure: MyHome.ie

“One chink of light is that new instructions to sell of 7,500 in the first 11 weeks of 2022 are well up from 4,800 in 2021, albeit still below the 9,250 in 2019. The flow of new properties therefore remains impaired,” said Mr Mac Coille.

“Whatever new supply is emerging is being met by more than ample demand. Hence, transaction volumes in January and February were up 13 per cent on the year but pushed the market into ever tighter territory,” he said.

He said Davy was now predicting property-price inflation to average 7 per cent this year, up from a previous forecast of 4.5 per cent, buoyed strong employment growth.

Homes

Daft, meanwhile, said house asking prices indicated the average listed price nationwide in the first quarter of 2022 was €299,093, up 8.4 per cent on the same period in 2021 and and just 19 per cent below the Celtic Tiger peak, while noting increases remain smaller in urban areas, compared to rural.

Just 10,000 homes were listed for sale on its website as of March 1st, an all-time low. In Dublin, Cork and Galway cities, prices in the first quarter of 2022 were roughly 4 per cent higher on average than a year previously, while in Limerick and Waterford cities the increases were 7.6 per cent and 9.3 per cent respectively.

The report’s author, Trinity College Dublin economist Ronan Lyons, said: “Inflation in housing prices remains stubbornly high – with Covid-19 disturbing an equilibrium of sorts that had emerged, with prices largely stable in 2019 but increasing since.

“As has been the case consistently over the last decade, increasing prices – initially in Dublin and then elsewhere – reflect a combination of strong demand and very weak supply.”


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