New study offers further proof: sick pay saves lives

A new study from the United States has found that emergency legislation to pay workers full sick pay has prevented hundreds of thousands of Covid infections and saved thousands of lives.

Unique among OECD countries, the USA has no statutory sick pay system. Realising that this could force infectious workers into work and turn many workplaces into Covid hotspots, Donald Trump signed off on emergency legislation on 19 March. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act grants around 20 million workers in middle-sized businesses two weeks full paid leave if they need to isolate.

Epidemiologists have found that this measure has prevented about 400 cases a day per state, equivalent to about 600,000 new cases.

There are many problems with the FFCRA provision. It only covers workers in medium sized businesses and only for two weeks leave. Many larger US employers have their own occupational sick pay schemes but many, like Amazon, do not. Most worrying, even this limited provision is due to end next month just as Coronavirus cases are soaring.

Next to the US, the UK’s statutory sick pay scheme of just £95.85 a week is the lowest in the developed world. But unlike Donald Trump’s administration, the UK government has made almost no attempt to ease the financial burden of isolation despite being aware of this problem since March.

A £500 isolation support payment was introduced 7 months into the pandemic and after the UK had already suffered over 40,000 excess deaths. However, tens of millions of workers are ineligible for the payment and the application process is so complicated that the Resolution Foundation claims “almost no one” has received it.

The new research suggests that thousands of lives could have been saved if the UK government had ensured full sick pay for all workers, like in Germany and some other EU states. Thousands of lives can still be saved if the government acts on this issue now.

Test and Trace staff cannot afford to isolate

Speaking to a parliamentary committee on 10th November, head of Test and Trace, Dido Harding told MPs:

“All the evidence shows that people are not complying with isolation not because they don’t want to but because they find it very difficult.

“The need to keep earning and to be able to feed your family is a fundamental element of it which is why I think the financial support payment is a very good thing.”

The financial support that she refers to is the £500 isolation support payment which was introduced in September. But millions of workers, including thousands of Harding’s own frontline Test and Trace workers, are ineligible for the payments.

According to government figures around 8 million workers remain ineligible for the support payment and if they have to isolate with suspected Coronavirus at best they would receive just £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay. This puts them under extreme financial pressure to continue to work when they should be isolating and as Harding admits, is one of the key reasons why 4 out of 5 people breach isolation rules.

Despite bearing the NHS brand, Test and Trace is run by a hodge-podge of private contractors. Safe and Equal has received reports that staff employed by G4S at Covid Test Centres are on zero hour contracts with no rights to sick pay. Many of these workers will not be eligible for social security payments and therefore will not get the £500 isolation payment. Even if a worker did meet the criteria for the £500 payment, they would still have to gamble income and future employment on the outcome of a positive test. Many, especially those who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, will not take that risk.

Alongside G4S, Test and Trace have also given contracts to Amazon, Serco and other firms well known for their hyper-exploitative employment practices. In fact, the whole Test and Trace system has been set up to filter £10 billion of taxpayers money through many layers of sub-contracting with dozens of private firms filling their profit margins and leaving very little left over for the workers actually doing the work on the ground.

Workers in the test centres are coming into close contact with dozens of Covid-positive people every day and despite precautions are at high risk of contracting the illness. They are also some of the workers least likely to be able to follow public health advice turning each Test Centre into a potential Covid hotspot.

Test and Trace should be taken into public ownership and its workers should be employed on NHS terms and conditions. As a step towards that, Harding should insist that all companies operating under the Test and Trace banner pay full sick and isolation pay as an essential infection control measure. Without these basic rights, Test and Trace is undermining its own efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Hospital refuses to pay workers sick pay

Note: on 22.10.2020 BRHUT revised their answer (see comments section below). We are unsure if this was due to pressure from Safe and Equal supporters or if the original email contained an error. In any case, we continue to encourage supporters to make FOI requests of their local NHS Trusts to ensure they are complying with instructions to pay outsourced workers and bank staff full sick and isolation pay.

A Freedom of Information request from Safe and Equal supporters at Redbridge Trades Council has found that Barking, Redbridge and Havering University Hospitals NHS Trust (BRHUT) is in breach of government instructions to ensure all healthcare staff have rights to full sick and isolation pay.

Bank staff working at the Trust, which includes King George Hospital in Goodmayes and Queen’s Hospital in Romford, are only entitled to Statutory Sick Pay at £95.85 a week if they have to isolate following public health guidance. On 27th March, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England and NHS Improvement, Public Health England (PHE), Health Education England and NHS Employers put out a joint statement: “It is essential for infection control purposes that staff members who are told to self-isolate, do so as quickly as possible. NHS England and NHS Improvement wrote to chief executives on 2 March 2020, stating staff should receive full pay whilst in self-isolation. This includes bank staff and sub-contractors, who have to be physically present at an NHS facility to carry out their duties.”

DHSC understood at the beginning of the pandemic that the miserly £95.85 a week SSP would create a financial pressure that would drive staff into work when they should be isolating, potentially infecting other workers and vulnerable patients. By refusing to implement this instruction, BRHUT are failing in their duty of care to patients and their health and safety duty to staff, to take all reasonable measures to reduce the risk of infection upon Trust premises. 

This admission that the Trust is breaking DHSC rules for bank workers raises questions about the provision of full sick and isolation pay for outsourced workers: the many domestics, porters, security, maintenance and other essential staff who keep our NHS running. It also suggests there may be other Trusts breaking the rules and letting pre-Covid norms of poverty pay, zero hour contracts and no sick pay continue despite knowing this increases the risk of infection. One study found 12.5% of Coronavirus patients contracted the disease in hospital. BRHUT bosses have admitted to a “small number of outbreaks” within their hospitals. How many of these hospital-acquired infections were caused by keyworkers who can not afford to take time off to isolate because their employer denies them full sick and isolation pay.

Safe and Equal campaign are calling on supporters to follow the lead of Redbridge Trades Council, submit your own FOI request to local hospital trusts and build pressure to ensure all NHS staff are receiving full sick and isolation pay.

Model FoI request:

I would like to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

As is widely acknowledged within the NHS (https://www.nhsemployers.org/covid19/staff-terms-and-conditions/self-isolation), it is essential for infection control purposes that workers within NHS premises experience no financial pressure to attend work when they should be isolating following public health advice. This is especially important when some Covid-19 symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell, are invisible and many people who should be isolating, and are potentially infectious, are asymptomatic. 

Please can you

  1. Confirm that the Trust is fully compliant with the instructions issued by NHS England and NHS Improvement on 2nd March 2020 to “ensure that any member of staff, including bank staff and sub-contractors, who has to be physically present at an NHS facility to carry out their duties, receives full pay for any period in which they are required to self-isolate as a result of public health advice.”
  2. Explain the arrangements that you have with your subcontractors for paying outsourced workers full sick or isolation pay should they need to isolate following public health advice
  3. Explain how this right to full sick or isolation pay has been communicated to all workers with duties on Trust premises.

Please let us know what responses you get to this query and we will publish the results.

Millions miss out on new isolation payment

On 20th September the government announced a new scheme aimed to support low paid workers to self-isolate. The scheme itself is wholly inadequate but it is the third and most high profile admission by government that low wage, insecure work and miserly Statutory Sick Pay are major obstacles to controlling the spread of Coronavirus.

From the 28th September, some workers will be eligible for £500 for two weeks isolation but only if you meet the government’s four criteria:

  • You must be receiving Universal Credit, Working Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit and/or Pension Credit
  • You must be employed or self-employed
  • You must be unable to work from home and will lose income as a result
  • You must have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace

The government claim this will help out 4 million workers. But the scheme is full of flaws. 

Firstly, it does not offer any support for low waged workers who have Coronavirus symptoms or those who are living with people with symptoms who have not had a test. It only covers people who have had a positive test or have been told to isolate by Test and Trace. If workers are coughing or have a fever then they still face an impossible situation: gamble wages and possibly future employment on the outcome of a positive test or continue to work potentially infecting others. If you are asymptomatic but are living with someone with symptoms, the pressure to ignore isolation rules and encourage them to avoid a test is even greater. A parliamentary select committee recently heard from Dido Harding, the Tory peer in charge of Test and Trace, that on average each infected person informed Test and Trace of just 3-4 ‘close contacts’ sugggesting most people avoided naming all the people they had been in close contact with. In the same meeting, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested Test and Trace might be contacting as few as 3% of the people who should be isolating. On top of this, those who are told to isolate by the NHS app are not eligible for the payment.

Second, government figures suggest 12 million workers do not receive occupational sick pay and will only receive SSP if they have to isolate. Only the worst paid 4 million – those that have their incomes topped up by social security payments – will qualify for this scheme. The other 8 million will still have to take a massive financial hit if they get a positive test or are told to isolate by Test and Trace meaning many will avoid getting tested and will take measures to avoid being traced. Furthermore, many of the 4 million workers who qualify will be employed part-time and may well earn more with this £500 isolation payment than they would have done for two weeks work. In contrast, a low waged full time worker who does not qualify for social security payments would suffer much more financial hardship if they have to isolate on SSP. This scheme does not  help those with most to lose from isolation.

For example, a family of two adult minimum wage workers with no occupational sick pay entitlement could lose nearly £800 of income if one of their children developed symptoms of Coronavirus and they had to isolate for two weeks on SSP. The family next door might have one adult in full time work and another working 5 hours a week topping up their income with housing benefit. If the part time worker gets told to isolate by Test and Trace this household could have an extra £400+ for the two weeks of isolation. Statistically it is more likely that the adults in the first household are infected with Coronavirus.

Third, because the scheme is only for those workers who claim benefits, it will not help over a million workers who have no recourse to public funds status.

In addition to these problems, the scheme is very bureaucratic. Workers are entitled to this money from 28th September but the schemes, run by cash strapped local authorities, will not be up and running until 12th October. Councils have been told to back pay workers who make claims into this scheme but that could leave many workers with financial difficulties while they wait for the payments to come through. The payment is not automatic and workers need to apply for the money and provide all sorts of documentation.

According to the government’s own estimates, over 80% of people who should be isolating are not. Over 80%! The majority of this non-compliance must be due to severe financial pressure driving people to work because they cannot afford to get by on SSP or risk losing insecure work by taking time off. 

Alongside this inadequate £500 scheme, the government has also said they will fine people £1000-£10,000 if they do not isolate when they should. However, there is no easy way to police who should and who should not isolate at any given time: most people who should be isolating will be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. If the government were serious about issuing these £1000 fines they would need a level of state surveillance significantly beyond anything that exists in the UK. There is no indication this is what they are planning and in any case, they would mostly be targeting people who could not afford to pay the fines!

Other European countries do not have this problem and do not have our death rates. This is in part because all other European countries have generous state run sick pay schemes, many of which pay full wages for periods of sickness. These were extended during the pandemic to include payment of normal wages for periods of isolation. When our European neighbours get symptoms they can stay at home without having to worry about eviction, paying the bills and putting food on the table. The UK’s SSP is the worst in the developed world by a long way. This latest gimmick does little to address the problem, but it is an admission by government that there is a problem. They have been forced to make this concession by workers’ campaigns. By campaigning at work and in our communities we can win much more: a levelling up for those 12 million workers to the same rights to sick and isolation pay as exist for many unionised workers.

London Underground sick pay scandal

Reprinted courtesy of the Tubeworker blog

At the beginning of the pandemic, RMT won an agreement from TfL and cleaning contractor ABM that any cleaner who needed to self-isolate, or take time off sick due to Covid, would be paid in full. Normally cleaners only receive Statutory Sick Pay of £95.85 per week, well below their usual weekly rate and clearly not enough to live on. This agreement meant cleaners who had symptoms could afford to self-isolate, and wouldn’t have to drag themselves to work, putting themselves and others in danger, because they were worried about paying the bills.

That agreement has now been withdrawn. 

This is an absolutely scandalous move from penny-pinching bosses. Tube cleaners are absolutely on the frontline of confronting the pandemic, doing vital work to keep our stations, trains, depots, and offices clean. If they can’t afford to follow public health guidance and self-isolate when necessary, that represents a huge infection control risk that puts the cleaners themselves, other workers, and passengers in danger.

RMT is taking up the issue with ABM, TfL, and the Mayor. If ABM “can’t afford” to pay full sick pay, TfL should subsidise them. Although as an RMT report from January showed, ABM is making profits.

If progress isn’t made quickly, the issue needs to be escalated, including via industrial action – and not just by cleaners. Although anti-union laws prevent workers from striking directly in solidarity with others, our unions should explore the possibility of declaring disputes on behalf of directly-employed TfL and LU staff on the basis that TfL/LU’s refusal to guarantee full sick pay for cleaners puts all workers in the workplace at risk.

Official: government paper suggests less than 20% are following isolation guidelines

An official government document released at the end of August stated that “the rate of self-isolation and quarantine for those that test positive [is] currently estimated to be <20% fully adherent.”

Many of us will be aware of the many bizarre rules that now govern our lives, from the rule of six to the one-way systems in workplaces. But none of this is much help if 4 out of 5 people who are infected or highly likely to be infected are out and about, mixing with others and spreading the virus.

If the government believe over 80% infected or probably infected people are breaking isolation and spreading infection to everyone else, why are they not doing anything about it?

Compliance with most Covid measures is much higher that 20%. For example, the Office for National Statistics found that 61% of people wore a face covering when they went out in public. A major part of this lack of compliance with the isolation guidelines must be that millions of people cannot afford to take time off work on £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay.

The government are aware of this and it is the reason they introduced isolation pay for outsourced workers in the NHS in March 2020 and (in a partial way) in the care sector in June 2020. They must also be aware that the devolved administrations have heavily criticised SSP and that lack of sick pay has been a factor in local outbreaks in the North Wales meat factories and elsewhere. The government must also know that SSP was described by the Council of Europe as “woefully inadequate”, that it is the most miserly sickness benefit system in the OECD by a long way.

If the government were serious about improving compliance with their isolation strategy and serious about slowing the spread of the virus then they would organise to ensure all workers could isolate on full pay.

Careworkers to strike for NHS terms and conditions and £12 an hour

Careworkers in North London have threatened strikes in struggle to win £12 an hour and NHS terms and conditions.

They are organising in the United Voices of the World union who say:

“Throughout this deadly pandemic they have risked their lives to care for the elderly and some of the most vulnerable, and all on poverty wages and Dickensian terms and conditions of employment. And the only “reward” they’ve been given is a free pizza for lunch one day!

This is UVW’s first ever care worker dispute, and you can be sure that we will fight to win to the bitter end!

So, if you want to support these heroes in their battle for equality, dignity, and respect in the workplace, please drop us a message at info@uvwunion.org.uk.

Quality care deserves quality pay!

Tribunal rules: Pay homecarers travel time!

Home careworkers in Haringey, supported by Unison, have been award over £10,000 each at employment tribunal in a signficant victory that could result in large payouts for hundreds of thousands of home care workers across the country.

The employment tribunal ruled that the employers,  Kaamil Education Limited, Diligent Care Services Limited, and Premier Carewaiting Limited – had acted unlawfully by not paying workers for travel times between visits. They were ordered to pay more than £100,000 in backdated earnings to the ten homecare staff who took the claim.

It is commonplace for home careworkers to have to travel without pay between visits but those workers could now receive large sums in unpaid backdated wages. Unison explain:

“The judgment said that travelling and waiting time of up to 60 minutes between appointments should be treated as working time…The fact ​that the compensation details involving the 10 workers are public – and not subject to a confidentiality clause – is also significant… Other homecare workers on similar pay ​rates will now ​feel empowered to challenge ​any employers who fail to pay them correctly.”

Careworkers ​who are working for super-exploitative bosses who do not pay travel time should contact their union immediately and submit a claim for backdated wages for all that unpaid travel time. Any careworkers not in a union can find out how to join here.

Just 41% care providers pay staff to isolate despite being given £600 million taxpayer’s money

According to the latest figures from government, just 41.4% of care providers in England have used the £600 million Infection Control Fund to pay workers who are isolating following a positive test. The government now plans to add a further £546 million to the fund.

There remains some doubt as to what the remaining 59% of care providers are doing but we suspect that hundreds of thousands of careworkers are still in the terrible position of being unable to afford to isolate if they have suspected Coronavirus infection. Even when care agency bosses are given free money by the taxpayer, some are still refusing to pay their workers isolation pay. The government-backed Vivaldi study which surveyed over 9000 carehomes found that just over 14% of carehome providers paid occupational sick pay, with 79% paying just SSP and 7% claiming their workers get nothing at all when they are sick (which is illegal).

In recent months the GMB have won national deals with Larchwood and HC-One to ensure workers can isolate on full pay following a positive test.

Progress is being made but carehomes remain high risk areas for Covid-19 infection because the provision is so patchy and limited. It is not clear that careworkers are getting paid if a member of their household has symptoms or they are told to isolate by Track and Trace. It is not clear whether this has been extended to domicillary careworkers.

In Scotland and more recently in Wales, the devolved administrations have introduced very clear policies to ensure full isolation pay for all careworkers. In Northern Ireland, careworkers receive 80% wages if they have to isolate. Unlike in England, the government have set out a clear policy that all careworkers are entitled to this provision, rather than funnelling money through a convoluted voluntary scheme via local authorities and carehome bosses. Most importantly, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have made clear statements about why full isolation pay is necessary to keep carehome residents safe, while the English government has been virtually silent.

The pandemic is showing clearly that all careworkers need decent pay, terms and conditions and the whole social care system needs to be taken out of private hands and run as a democratically accountable and publically owned service.

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.