Those working in the community and voluntary sector say they are now facing a crisis unless the Department of Social Welfare urgently addresses the employee contracts issue affecting thousands of people on Community Employment schemes (CE).
Former Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, said CE workers have played a vital role in the frontline community response to the pandemic. "They were the first to step up to the call to support older people who were cocooned in their homes by providing meals on wheels and other services funded by the HSE," he said.
"In my view they are the heroes of the community service programme during Covid-19 so far."
He has now written to the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty asking her to grant these workers an extension in their contracts for at least another 12 months. All CE staff are employed by voluntary organisations under a contract issued by the Department of Social Protection. Each participant is employed by eligibility determined by the department. They work on a wide range of community programmes and take part in training courses to help them enter the workplace. Mr Fitzgerald said the training is a key component of the schemes but the outbreak has forced the suspension of all training.Despite this, he said the CE staff have remained on the frontline, helping to cook and deliver meals and hampers through meals on wheels services. And in some cases, these CE workers are the only daily personal contact for some older people. Mr Fitzgerald, who is involved in a community project in Knocknaheeny, said: "Our board of management have been overwhelmed by the commitment of the CE workers, and the dedication by these staff to older people’s needs and they have adapted very well to Covid-19 guidelines. "We know there are delays for progression into the workplace, due to lack of training and we know also that people who lost employment due to Covid-19 will not be eligible for a year for a scheme as they need to be unemployed for 52 weeks."It’s quite likely before we reach the end of Covid-19 that voluntary organisations will be without these staff and we now need to make plans for the future, but the gift is in the Minister's hands."