UK: bottom of the league for sick pay

Since the beginning of the pandemic most of the 34 countries in the OECD have expanded or initiated statutory paid sick leave and other forms of financial help. We need to make the arguments for most of these new arrangements to stay in place or be further improved. And we need to win the arguments over the general importance of paid sick leave in protecting health, jobs, and income.

The OECD data showed the governments that did most to support workers during the pandemic were Spain, Portugal, France, Finland, Australia and Canada across a range of measures. The least “popular” measures for governments were specific support for frontline workers and financial help for people with caring responsibilities.

An online report by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, analysed the OECD data, highlighting the fact that 4-6% of all employed workers were on paid sick leave in the most critical period of the pandemic. That’s a lot. The percentage would have been significantly higher if so many workers had not been put onto job retention schemes.

But the levels of sick pay also count. On average, across all the OECD countries, workers receive about 70% of their last wage as statutory (or mandatory) sick pay. It is as high as 100% in a significant number of countries.

This sick pay has to be paid by employers for a period of time; in the UK it is up to 28 weeks. But the UK’s £95.85 per week statutory level is now the lowest, as a percentage of earnings, of all OECD countries. As elsewhere, in the UK some workers are covered by agreements with employers which provide much better sick pay but the low level of statutory sick pay is a scandal and it exacerbates all sick pay agreements.

Almost half of countries, notably Finland, France, Israel and New Zealand increased the level of statutory sick pay for the duration of the pandemic. Not the UK.

Everywhere the picture is not great for self-employed workers (depending on insurance rules), and is very bad for those working in casual and the gig economy employment.

Outside of pandemic conditions employers try to avoid paying sick pay by instituting the maximum number of sick days and bullying workers back to work. That has been less possible to justify during a pandemic when openly bullying workers was undermining quarantine. On the other hand in most countries during the pandemic governments have allowed employers to reclaim statutory sick pay, and pay sick pay to people quarantining. So there was no real need for bosses to put the squeeze on workers over sickness days in their usual ways. It was the low level of sick pay, and the inability of workers to afford to quarantine, which pushed UK workers back to work.

Now we need to make the arguments to continue these concessions and improvements in sick pay, demanding action from both bosses and government:

• Paid sick leave remains important to protect us all from a second infection of Covid-19.

• Paid sick leave allows infected and potentially infected workers to quarantine quickly, without job loss and with limited income loss. 

• Paid sick leave can protect us from infectious diseases at other times. 

• Paid sick leave preserves the jobs of sick and quarantined workers. (According to other research, job losses and working hour reductions during the COVID-19 outbreak have been larger in US states without a paid sick leave);

The OECD research, showing inconsistency in sick pay regimes, points to the need to level up and improve sick pay across the board and internationally. We need to argue for:

• Levels set at 100% of wages, over a long-term, for both sickness and quarantining and to enable caring responsibilities.

• Sick leave for all groups of workers and all types of disease and illness;

• Carers leave with the same comprehensive conditions.

• A strong framework for returning to work including flexible payments and hours.

• Stronger systems of help during epidemics.

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