The threat of a coronavirus pandemic and the measures taken to contain it have exposed insecurity in the workplace as many workers face the prospect of being forced to stay home without pay.
Prime minister Boris Johnson on Monday (March 2) convened an emergency Cobra meeting on the coronavirus outbreak, whose global death toll has now surpassed 3,000. As of writing there are now 51 people in the UK who are confirmed to have the virus.
On Tuesday (March 3) the government published its official ‘action plan’ to combat the virus. The government has also advised that people who have returned from travel to certain countries and feel unwell should self-isolate for up to 14 days.
But as more and more people may be forced to self-isolate to contain the virus, a growing number of workers face the prospect of being forced to stay home without pay.
JD Wetherspoons pub chain was strongly criticised last week for telling employees that the coronavirus will be treated like any sickness and only statutory sick pay (SSP) rules would apply to those who have been asked to self-isolate, even by government order.
In practice this means workers will not receive sick pay from day one – they will instead have to wait for four days before receiving SSP. Workers only entitled to SSP who do not receive enhanced sick pay from their employers will be paid just £94.25 a week.
Unite has highlighted that Wetherspoons workers are not alone in facing the impossible decision of being paid their regular wages or preventing the spread of a deadly virus by staying at home unpaid or on SSP after four days.
A large group of part-time workers – about two million – are not even entitled to statutory sick pay because they do not earn the minimum of £118 a week. This includes nearly a quarter of workers on zero hours contracts and one in 10 working women. The more than five million self-employed workers in the UK are also not entitled to SSP.
Unite has now called on the government to introduce emergency legislation to ensure all workers receive statutory sick pay from day one, regardless of how much they earn. The union is also calling for workers who must self-isolate to be fully paid for the time they must take off.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said this was “a vital public health issue — the state must intervene to protect workers where collective agreements don’t exist.
“Without decisive intervention workers simply won’t stay at home – they can’t afford to,” he added. “Government must also intervene with respect to gig workers, the self-employed and those who don’t have rights to statutory sick pay.”
So far the government has refused to back guaranteed sick pay for all workers amid the coronavirus outbreak. Work and pensions minister Justin Tomlinson said this week that those who are not entitled to statutory sick pay should simply sign on to Universal Credit, despite knowing that Universal Credit payments can take up to five weeks to come through.
When asked pointedly today whether the government would introduce emergency sick pay for all workers who are forced to self-isolate, Boris Johnson said only, “We’re going to keep all options under review but we’re well aware of the issue.”
The health secretary Matt Hancock was also repeatedly pressed on the issue of lack of sick pay for low-paid and self-employed workers in a Commons debate on the virus today. He simply reiterated the line that the government will keep the issue under review.
Until the government intervenes, then, workers are left at the mercy of employers.
But Unite has highlighted that some companies – mostly those where union agreements are in place – have taken their social responsibility to contain the virus seriously by committing to fully paying workers who must self-isolate.
“TSB Bank has told its staff that those who must take two weeks off for self-isolation will be paid under their emergency compassionate leave policy,” Unite national officer for finance Dominic Hook noted. “This means it will not be recorded as sick leave and will be fully paid. This is an excellent example of best practice in tackling the coronavirus and keeping workers and the wider population safe.”
Hook noted that while TSB’s policy has been the most explicit, other banks with which Unite has an agreement have taken a similar stance in committing to fully pay staff for self-isolation.
Bakery chain Greggs has also publicly stated it will pay workers who self-isolate.
Unite national health and safety adviser Rob Miguel called on employers to follow suit and do the right thing.
“Acas advice, which can be found online, is useful for those unsure about their entitlement to sick pay,” he explained. “But as a union Unite will be working to negotiate well beyond Acas guidance – this guidance only highlights that there is no legal right to sick pay if a worker is forced to self-isolate where they have no symptoms, unless the employer instructs the worker to remain home.”
“Public Health England advises self-isolation when returning from certain specified countries, whether a person has symptoms or not.”
“Employers must acknowledge their responsibility to slow the transmission of this serious virus,” he added. “There is a high risk of workers coming into work in these circumstances if they know they will not be paid if they stay at home. This then puts other employees at risk if that person is infected. The only way we can contain and mitigate the impact of this virus is if everyone works together to do their bit — including employers.”
You can join the call for the government to guarantee sick pay for every worker from day one by signing the TUC’s petition here.