Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

How Britain’s Scandalously Low Sick Pay Kills

Britain has one of the worst rates of sick pay in Europe at just £95.85 per week. It leaves workers with a stark choice – go in sick during a pandemic, or stay home and face poverty.

Workers like Wilson Ayala Romero ‘don’t often get ill,’ he says. ‘Or rather, we can’t allow ourselves to be ill, because a weekly salary of £95.85 doesn’t allow us to live.’

Romero has worked as an outsourced cleaner in London—taking on multiple jobs at any one time—for nine years, since he moved to the UK from Ecuador. During the pandemic, he has been off sick with suspected Covid-19 twice. On each occasion, he says, it was ‘doubly traumatic: firstly, the sickness, and then, my financial situation.’

Like many precarious, low-waged workers in the UK, Romero could only rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) when he was unwell. At less than £100 per week, the UK’s sick pay rate is one of the lowest in Europe. It only kicks in after three days, and almost two million workers—mostly women—do not earn enough to qualify for it – so when workers need to self-isolate because they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19, they risk not receiving any pay at all.

Romero is the chair of the cleaners’ branch of Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). Having been on the frontline fielding workers’ concerns, Romero says he believes inadequate sick pay when workers should be isolating because of Covid-19 symptoms or exposure has ‘contributed to the spread of the pandemic.’ Workers understand the severity of the pandemic, he says, but surviving on SSP is another public health risk: people are working rather than isolating because they ‘can’t survive’ on SSP. The health secretary himself has openly admitted that he couldn’t live on the rate.

Spreading the Problem

Last month, the Trades Union Congress has published a poll which found that 20 percent of workers who were forced to self-isolate received no pay at all for that time. 40 percent of workers surveyed—and 48 percent of disabled workers—said they would go into debt or arrears on their bills if they were forced to subsist on SSP.

In her four years as a care worker, Sarah has ‘never been able to afford to go off sick.’ She explains: ‘When you’re not on much, [a few days’ wage] is a lot of money to lose.’ Working through the pandemic, she says, has been ‘mentally draining,’ in part because she is frequently exposed to people who have Covid-19.

Derek, another care worker and UNISON member, tested positive for Covid-19. In the coming days his condition deteriorated, and at one point he woke up in hospital. ‘I don’t remember getting there,’ Derek says, ‘but my partner tells me that I couldn’t walk or talk.’

During the entirety of his period of absence—including the time spent in hospital—Derek was forced to take annual leave in order to avoid the drop in income caused by SSP. ‘Everyone has bills to pay, debts, families,’ he adds. ‘It would be difficult to get by on SSP.’

Tom, a Unite member who works as a refuse collector in Essex, doesn’t qualify for full sick pay because he’s an agency worker. ‘Doing this job you pick up a lot of strains and niggles,’ he tells Tribune. ‘Last year my Achilles began to hurt, but I shook it off and worked through it. Eventually it got so bad I could barely walk, never mind do a ten-mile round. I ended up taking a week off in total. My wife works as well, but it was still a serious blow that month to be out nearly £400 – I think we had to miss the council tax that month.’

He adds that during the pandemic, it hasn’t been unusual for those he works with avoid tests because of the financial implications of a positive result. ‘If they’re coughing, they’ll tell themselves it’s only a cold,’ he says. ‘We had an outbreak in our yard, and I can’t say that that’s definitely because someone avoided testing, but it’s at the back of your mind: are the blokes around you thinking that they’re better off powering through and saying nothing? We’re out touching hundreds of people’s bins a day. People should be able to isolate and not be put into hardship.’

Alicia, who is a nursery worker, is currently isolating at home after someone in her workplace tested positive for Covid-19. Communication from her employer, who is not paying her anything for the isolation period, has been confusing. ‘All they gave me was an email saying we could apply for support,’ she says, ‘and that we have to do it ourselves.’ She was directed to a government webpage offering track and trace ‘support payments’, but as far as she can tell she is not eligible for the scheme. She has a child to care for, and feels ‘depressed, anxious, and worried’.

‘The truth is that people go to work [when they are unwell or have been exposed to Covid-19],’ Alicia adds, ‘because they have to in order to survive. Otherwise how do we pay our bills?’ With the absence of adequate support—including, but not limited to, sick pay—she says the government is ‘playing with people’s lives.’

Bosses in Control

Romero also says that some bosses have pressured people to come into work when they should be isolating. Sometimes they face an ultimatum: ‘either you come to work, or you don’t have a job anymore,’ he says. ‘Companies have been trying to protect their finances by putting workers at risk.’

One outsourced cleaner, Romero tells Tribune, informed his boss that at the weekend he had been with a family member who had subsequently tested positive for the virus. His employer told him that unless he showed them a positive Covid-19 test, he had to come into work, which he did. He subsequently tested positive. The company was also providing insufficient personal protective equipment.

Another, a cleaner in an at-risk group, gave an NHS letter to their boss explaining that they had to shield. They were threatened with the sack.

Sarah’s niece also works in care. Having been told by a doctor to isolate due to Covid-19 exposure, her boss informed her that she would not be paid if she did. ‘She had to take it to a disciplinary to get isolation pay,’ Sarah says.

Mary works for the same care company as Derek. After members of her household started showing symptoms, she felt that she shouldn’t attend work the next day – but was told by her team leader to do so anyway. She worked her shifts that day and the following day; two members of her household then received a positive Covid result.

Like Derek, Mary took annual leave instead of living off the minimum SSP. ‘I’ve not taken a day off in the years I’ve worked for this company, and I always pick up extra shifts,’ she says. ‘Dropping my income to SSP would make it really hard to get by. I had annual leave booked in for later this year and now I’ve had to cut it short. We all need a break after working through this pandemic – this isn’t what our annual leave should be for.’

And employer pressure is worse for agency staff, whose ability to challenge their bosses is even more limited. Ali, who works as a security guard at a railway station, tells Tribune that his reliance on overtime makes it risky to demand better sick pay in case he loses his hours.

‘I work 40 or 45 hours per week, but I’m contracted for only 15 hours,’ he says. ‘I’ve worked for [the company] for three years at the same location, alongside in-house staff who do the same job, but I’m still considered a temporary worker.’

In December, Ali’s brother, who he lives with, tested positive for Covid. ‘For the first week my employer made me run down my annual leave,’ he says. ‘On the second week, they paid me £125 in statutory sick pay. That’s about 30 percent of my usual take-home pay.’

Organising for Better

While some of the population has been able to work from home during the pandemic, it’s been predominantly the working class continuing vital jobs like cleaning workplaces—including hospitals—and caring for children and vulnerable adults. In the most serious cases, lack of decent sick pay for these workers is tantamount to a death sentence: it’s not circumstantial that cleaners and care workers, along with other frontline staff, are two of the occupations worst affected by Covid-19 deaths.

‘People don’t see us as being anything but cheap labour,’ says Sarah. ‘An “unskilled workforce” – that’s how people see us.’

One source of hope is the fact that workers are looking out for each other, and fighting for better pay and conditions – of which statutory sick pay has now become a crucial aspect.

‘We have to fight for better working conditions,’ says Romero. ‘The government has not been clear about the measures they’re going to take to stop [the virus spreading in workplaces because of inadequate sick pay].’ He believes that employers should be obliged to pay workers isolating due to Covid-19 their full salaries, to stop them being pushed to work when they are unwell and spreading the virus.

Thanks to the many victories of unionised workers he has witnessed, Romero is hopeful. ‘As a union, we got our company to pay us a liveable wage. We’ve achieved that, so I think we can [win better sick pay].’ And change is happening: IWGB charity workers, for one, have recently won better sick pay. They’re now paid full wage, and covered from day one of illness.

Bearing close witness to the ‘exploitation and abuse’ fellow workers have faced during the pandemic has been ‘very traumatic, very stressful, very worrying’ at times, says Romero – but struggling alongside them is also what’s kept him going. When he was ill with Covid and alone at home, he says that ‘people were calling me every day to find out how I was or if I needed something – I had support from my comrades.’ It is this collectivism that makes Romero sure that workers have the power to win ‘better laws, that guarantee a better, equal life for all.’