Corona Virus – advice from the branch

The UK currently faces a heightened risk of people falling ill with Corona Virus, a respiratory disease which spreads rapidly. The Prime Minister has said that: “The most important thing now is that we prepare against a possible very significant expansion of Corona Virus in the UK population.”

Part of this preparation should be ensuring that our sick pay system is fit for purpose, so that everyone feels confident in following the public health advice given by the NHS and public health authorities like WSCC.

But at present, there are longstanding flaws in the system which mean many people miss out on sick pay and are both exposed and contributing to a heightened risk of this virus.

First – the good news, for some of our members

UNISON members on National Joint Council (NJC, ‘Green book’) contracts have very good sickness absence terms and conditions. This is because they work in a highly-unionised environment where terms and conditions are protected. After 5 years’ service, members receive provision for up to 6 months on full pay and 6 months absence on half-pay.

With regards to Corona Virus, the National Joint Council has written to all Chief Executives of NJC employers to remind them of the provision set out in the ‘Green Book’ Part 2 Para 10.9, as follows:

“An employee who is prevented from attending work because of contact with infectious disease shall be entitled to receive normal pay. The period of absence on this account shall not be reckoned against the employee’s entitlements under this scheme”

“In the event that an employee is required to self-isolate or is placed in quarantine, the provision above should be applied.”

Second – the not so good news, for some of our members

Partly because of the outsourcing of local government services over decades, and for other members in the private and voluntary sectors, there has been a worsening of sick pay provisions.

Members are advised to check their contracts of employment and employer policies on sickness absence.

But there is no doubt that many members will rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) which is the minimum that employers have to pay out.

SSP is too low

The weekly rate for SSP is £94.25. It can be paid for up to 28 weeks. The income replacement level is around 20% and is amongst the lowest of European nations. SSP is inadequate to meet basic living standards, particularly considering low-paid workers often have little or no savings to fall back on.

SSP and social protections for unemployed and self-employed people in the UK have breached legal obligations under European law, the Council of Europe has found. Such provisions were found to be ‘manifestly inadequate’ in a report by the European Committee of Social Rights.

SSP is not available for the first 3 days

SSP only kicks in if someone is sick for at least four days in a row. These waiting days include weekends, bank holidays and any days the worker doesn’t usually work. This leaves workers, especially those on low incomes, at risk of financial hardship.

It also makes it more likely that some will be tempted to ignore early symptoms and continue to attend work.

**BREAKING NEWS** – Workers will get statutory sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth, to help contain Corona Virus, the Prime Minster has announced at lunchtime on 4th March. This is the first of the TUC’s demands to be met: see below.

SSP requires earnings thresholds to be met

To qualify for SSP, your average weekly earnings over the previous eight weeks must be at least £118 a week. Nearly two million people miss out on receiving sick pay when ill due to this, and most of these are women, often in insecure work.

You are not eligible for SSP if you’re receiving statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or additional paternity pay. The self-employed are also excluded.

Certification of sickness

Normally an employer will require a doctor’s certificate, or ‘fit note’, after 7 days absence. In cases of Corona Virus, symptoms are likely to last more than 7 days, however people suffering are recommended to not leave home making it difficult to get a doctor’s certificate.

Our advice for the moment however is that if you feel you need to self-isolate, you should do so after receiving written notice, which will typically be issued by a GP or by the 111 NHS service. Then workers are deemed to be in accordance with the SSP regulations to be incapable of work, and so are entitled to statutory sick pay.

If somebody chooses to self-isolate, and/or is not given that written notice, then they are not entitled to statutory sickpay, and this could cause problems with your employer.

TUC action

In light of these limitations of SSP and the threat they pose to public health, the Trades Union Congress is lobbying government for the following:

  • Remove the waiting period for sick pay to ensure that it is available from the first day someone is sick.
  • Increase the weekly level of SSP from £94.25 to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the Real Living Wage.
  • Abolish the lower earnings limit (and any earnings threshold) for receiving Statutory Sick Pay, extending coverage to almost two million workers.
  • Agree that the legal requirement on fit notes after 7 days of absence be extended to 14 days; and for anything less than this, employers should accept self-certification.
  • Provide funds to ensure employers can afford to pay sick pay, and provide additional support to those who miss out.

Branch action

UNISON West Sussex has now written to the WSCC Director of Public Health and Chief Executive to ask them to:

  • review all contracts they have with third party suppliers to ensure that sickness pay and absence provision is sufficient to help contain the spread of Corona Virus.
  • directly intervene with their suppliers where this is necessary.
  • affirm sickness processes and entitlements for WSCC’s own staff and staff in schools.

If you need more advice, please contact the branch.