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Coronavirus, Sick Pay & The Case For Government Action

Handwashing is a must to contain coronavirus

Sick Pay from day one has been a long-term aspiration for workers.  The current spike of interest comes from an apparently ham-fisted employer – Wetherspoons – saying that they wouldn’t pay employees who couldn’t turn in because they were in quarantine or self-isolation, for the first three days.  This quickly morphed into a debate about the inadequacies of statutory sick leave.

Let’s try and untangle the two issues.

Wetherspoons have a point of sorts  when it comes to the impact of Coronavirus. Why should they pay beyond the legal minimum for staff absence?  Indeed, can they afford to do so?  This is a question that more and more employers are almost certainly have to deal with in coming weeks/months. 

But of course,  this is not simply an economic matter – the over-riding concern is public health.  And if not paying sick pay – either the statutory or employer-set variety –  means that unwell people struggle into work rather than stay home, it greatly undermines the government’s containment/delay strategy. There are so many workers without secure hours and pay that the potential level of non-compliance with medical advice is huge.

That in itself must be enough to prompt a state-led response.  The good news here is that this is a government that has already shown itself willing to (a)intervene and (b)spend big if they think it is appropriate.  So, making special bespoke arrangements for those in financial distress as a result of quarantine and self-isolation should be possible.  (I would suggest paying for it by a one-off time-limited increase in taxation, which may take the PM and Chancellor a little longer to get used to).

Irrespective of the government’s default philosophy (expertly analysed in this podcast, by the way), not to act effectively would be grossly irresponsible in making a bad situation very much worse.

That’s the challenge of Coronavirus.  But when the epidemic or pandemic has washed over us, or maybe swerved round us,  the underlying problems of statutory sick pay will remain.

And those problems are the entitlement thresh-hold you need to meet, and the level at which it is set. 

There’s a triple-lock on eligibility consisting of the requirement to be an employee (not a worker or self-employed), having been off work sick for at least 4 consecutive days, and to be earning an average of £118 per week.  You can see immediately where there is room for improvement, and why this benefit is arguably out-of-kilter with the UK’s economy.

If you pass the thresh-hold then you get just short of £95 a week,  for 28 weeks.  That’s only around a fifth of average earnings. 

It’s not surprising that this issue has acquired momentum. And Coronavirus or not, it makes no sense by any measure for sick people to come into work. The TUC’s petition for a change is worthy of support.

UPDATE 4 March: The Prime Minister has announced that statutory sick pay will be paid from day one, to help contain coronavirus.

Featured image by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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