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U-turn on sick pay abandons low paid workers

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The government has today u-turned on a promise to grant sick pay to two million workers.

Outdated rules mean you have to earn £120 a week in order to qualify for any statutory sick pay. Even before the pandemic, it was clear that this wasn’t fair or sensible. In their ‘Health is Everyone’s Business’ consultation, published in autumn 2019, government promised to do something about it: 

“The government is concerned that employees on lower incomes are missing out on the protection that SSP provides. People may be working when unwell, or relying on the benefit system, when remaining attached to their employer is likely to be more beneficial. The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices recommended extending SSP to include those earning below the LEL. This would extend SSP protection to around 2m employees, including over 1m who work less than 16 hours per week. The government believes there is a case to accept this recommendation.” 

Today they reneged on that promise, stating that: 

"Government maintains that SSP provides an important link between the employee and employer but that now is not the right time to introduce changes to the sick pay system.”. 

The Prime Minister and Chancellor were forced into another hasty u-turn this week on their own self-isolation, having initially claimed they didn’t need to respond to an introduction to self-isolate because of their participation in a ‘pilot scheme’.  Of course, they’ll still receive their full wages while working from home. But millions of workers aren’t so lucky: 

  • 51 per cent of workers in insecure jobs told us they receive no pay at all when off sick  

  • A third of those on zero hours contracts workers don’t qualify for any sick pay. 

  • And seven out of ten of those earning less than the £120 needed to qualify for sick pay are women.  

These are the workers who will continue to face the choice between putting their colleagues at risk by going into work or putting their family into hardship by missing out on pay.

We can’t quantify the cost to these workers of that choice. But we do know how much it would cost to fix it; around £150m a year. At the moment sick pay is paid by employers. But government has rebated some of the costs during the pandemic, and could do so to support this change. £150m is less than one per cent of the test and trace budget. Or if your preferred unit is vanity projects: three-quarters of a royal yacht. 

Including the two million workers currently missing out should be just the start of wider reforms to sick pay. For the average worker, sick pay is worth less than 20 per cent of earnings. Raising it to the level of the national living wage should be just the first step towards getting it to at least the OECD average of 70 per cent. 

It’s been clear throughout the pandemic that the lack of financial support for workers to self-isolate has been a major issue. Dido Harding highlighted it as a barrier to the test and trace scheme last year.  

The government’s main response has been to introduce a one-off payment delivered by local councils – the ‘Test and Trace support payment scheme.’ But the scheme isn’t working. Only 16 per cent of low-paid workers have even heard of it. And when they do apply – most don’t get support. Even after extra money was put into the scheme in February, 65 per cent of applications are rejected.  

The original consultation was clear that Government knows what the problem is, it knows how to fix it, and it can afford to do so. It’s hard to understand how a pandemic that has put the lives of millions of low paid workers at risk would lead to a change of heart – unless the lives of these workers are of so little value to the government that they don’t think it's worth the effort.  

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