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The TUC has today (Tuesday) accused the government of abandoning low-paid workers after it reneged on plans to reform statutory sick pay – including removing the ‘lower earnings limit’ to ensure all workers can access sick pay.

According to TUC analysis, two million workers in the UK do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay – and 70 per cent of these workers are women.

The union body has branded the failure to include sick pay reform in its published consultation response 'Health is everyone's business' yet another example of penny pinching and grossly irresponsible.

The government launched the ‘Health is everyone’s business’ consultation in November 2019, promising to look at the specific issue of removing the lower earnings limit.

Commenting on the failure to remove the lower earnings limit from statutory sick pay, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:

“The government has abandoned millions of low-paid workers at the worst possible time.

“With Covid cases going through the roof, its refusal to make sick pay available for all is grossly irresponsible and will help drive infections still higher.

"This is yet another example of short-sighted penny pinching from the Treasury, which is undermining Britain's public health effort.

“The millions of low-paid workers who are not eligible for statutory sick pay – mostly women – could only dream of a VIP pilot scheme to allow them to opt out of self-isolation at the drop of a hat. Instead, they are forced to choose between doing the right thing or being plunged into financial hardship.”

On the failure to fix sick pay eighteen months into the pandemic, Frances added:

"Rather than supporting people to self-isolate, ministers are making it financially impossible.

"This boils down to political choices. Giving everyone access to statutory sick pay would cost less than one per cent of the failed test and trace scheme.

“Over a year and a half into the pandemic, it's high time the government did the right thing by making sick pay available to all and raising it to a real Living Wage.”

As recently as January, ministers had promised reforms that would address the level of sick pay and the lower earnings limit, but have since been blocked by the chancellor.

Recent research by the Fabian Society, commissioned by the TUC, shows that removing the lower earnings limit, which prevents those on low earnings from accessing statutory sick pay, would cost employers a maximum of £150m a year.

And it would cost the government less than one per cent of the test and trace scheme to support employers with these costs. The union body points out this cost is also markedly lower than the cost of the planned royal yacht (£200m).

The research also finds that on average the cost of raising statutory sick pay to a real Living Wage for employers without an occupational sick pay scheme would be around £110 per employee per year – or just over £2 a week.

The TUC has called the self-isolation payments scheme, which is meant to help those struggling to self-isolate for financial reasons, a “failing scheme few people have heard of”.

Recent TUC research revealed around two-thirds have been rejected from the scheme. The union body also points to recent polling which reveals just 16 per cent of those who do not receive SSP are aware of the scheme.

Editors note

- The government consultation response ‘Health is everyone’s business: proposals to reduce ill health-related job loss’ can be found here

-On the lower earnings limit, the consultation response says:

“Employees who earn less than the Lower Earnings Limit (LEL), which is currently £120 per week, do not qualify for SSP. This includes those who have multiple jobs which are each paid below the LEL. Government did not extend SSP to employees below the LEL as part of its response to the pandemic. Extending SSP in this way would not have been the most efficient way to support these employees and would have placed an immediate cost on employers at a time where most required government support.

“The consultation asked whether respondents agreed that SSP should be extended to employees earning below the LEL and views on the rate that should be extended to this group. A majority of respondents (75%) agreed that SSP should be extended to employees earning below the LEL. This measure was supported by small and large employer respondents alike. Respondents felt that by extending SSP to those earning below the LEL, employers would be better incentivised to reduce sickness absence for all of their employees.”

-On next steps, the consultation response says:

“The consultation posed several important questions on the future of SSP which require further consideration.

“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.”

- In November 2019, the Government consulted on removing the lower earnings limit from sick-pay, in a consultation on 'Health is everyone's business': “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.”

- On March 3rd 2020, the TUC wrote to Therese Coffey and Matt Hancock to ask them to bring forward the removal of the lower earnings limit – the TUC has repeated this call on multiple occasions, and met with both Therese Coffey and the Chancellor to make the case.

 - On January 25th 2021 Justin Tomlinson, the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work said in response to a parliamentary question:  “...through ‘Health is everyone’s business’, we have covered a range of measures to look at reforming SSP. We will publish those findings shortly, but they will look at things such as the rate, the structure and the lower earnings threshold, as well as actually dealing with the issue that people are either 100% fit or 100% sick without any phased return to work, which is something we are determined to change.”

- On 18th July 2021 Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson rapidly reconsidered their decision not to self-isolate when asked to do so by the app - a decision it was possible for them to make as they were able to work from home

- Publicly available cost of Test and trace is £37bn – according to the Fabian Society, the maximum cost of removing the lower earnings limit would be £150 million – 0.4 per cent of that. The Fabian Society report Statutory Sick Pay: Options for reform is available here

- TUC research has found that two million workers aren't eligible for sick pay and a third of those on zero hours contracts don't qualify for sick pay - 7 in ten are women

- Insecure workers are ten times more likely than workers in more secure jobs to get nothing when off sick (51 per cent to 5 per cent)

- TUC FOI data shows that since the government announced additional funding for the self-isolation payments scheme at the end of February, 64 per cent have of applicants been rejected from the scheme, while just 36 per cent of applicants received the one-off £500 grant to help them self-isolate.

- The Trades Union Congress (TUC) exists to make the working world a better place for everyone. We bring together the 5.5 million working people who make up our 48 member unions. We support unions to grow and thrive, and we stand up for everyone who works for a living.


TUC press office  
020 7467 1248 

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