Today, the chancellor has an opportunity to present a budget that will make a huge difference in fighting the growing challenges of coronavirus (Covid-19) and its consequences for our health, jobs and daily lives.
If the government is serious about doing what it takes to ensure people self-isolate then they need to remove all barriers to people in work. That means a significant increase in statutory sick pay (SSP) for all those who must self-isolate for the health of the wider community.
Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, GMB has highlighted the impossible choice facing our members: pay the rent or come to work — sometimes in an NHS hospital — when sick. We know only too well that people will present for work when they should be at home for fear of losing money, future work or being judged negatively by their employer for taking sickness absence.
At £94.25 per week, SSP is cripplingly low. It’s not enough to live on. It’s not enough to feed your family, pay your bills or put a roof over your head. It forces you to choose between a severe reduction of earnings and calling in sick — or going to work when you know you shouldn’t.
GMB has been fighting hard for outsourced minimum wage workers that keep our hospitals running. They can’t take the financial hit of statutory sick pay. It is in everyone’s interest that there is no financial hardship for hard-pressed workers in all sectors wanting to do the right thing.
This crisis has shone a light on the private companies that operate in the shadows of our NHS and make their profit by cutting corners, paying the minimum wage and sticking to the minimum they are legally obliged to in the form of statutory sick pay. Given the extremely high contagion rate of Covid-19 — and the government’s instruction to self-isolate as part of measures to restrict infections -— GMB sounded the alarm that many of these low paid workers simply couldn’t afford to.
“Statutory sick pay is not enough to feed your family, pay your bills or put a roof over your head.”
The government bowed to the pressure and removed the “waiting days” before eligibility for SSP and this is an important step forward for the wider trade union movement. However, it fell short of increasing the rate for self-isolating workers to a much more appropriate level.
Now in the public spotlight, several global providers operating in our NHS agreed to match full pay from day one so their staff aren’t financially penalised from self-isolation. We welcome this. It’s the right thing to do, but there are many more who do the very minimum and don’t pay a penny more than they legally have to. This is no way to treat people in good times, never mind in such a challenging environment.
That’s why we need government to take swift action this budget and significantly increase statutory sick pay. Low paid workers who are vital to containing and delaying the spread of and ultimately treating Covid-19 are putting themselves on the front line and it is the least they deserve should they fall ill or be required to be absent from work.
It is also about consistency and fairness. In the NHS, the only people who don’t get full pay from day one are in the lowest paid jobs.
You might not know that the cleaners who keep everything sanitary, chefs and canteen staff, the ward hosts who feed the patients, the laundry team, the infection control cleaners, the porters who move patients around the hospitals and the security guards and patient transport staff are treated differently.
GMB calculated how much it would cost to ensure all of them could afford to ’self-isolate” for two weeks. Data on these private contractors is notoriously scarce — because despite being funded from the public purse — because they aren’t covered by the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite this, modelling of outsourced contractors in the public sector from the Living Wage Foundation estimated that in 2019 there were 131,000 outsourced workers paid less than the real living wage working in NHS.
We know these private contractors operate in a race to the bottom on cost and only pay what they’re legally forced to by TUPE or tender stipulations, which are rare.
It is reasonable to assume the 131,000 earning below the real living wage won’t be earning full sick pay either.
The cost for outsourced low paid workers in our NHS to be topped up so they can properly afford to self-isolate would be £66,679,000 or £509 per worker. If that’s the price of public safety, it’s one worth paying.
The case for significantly increasing statutory sick pay for all workers has never been higher. Not only is it the right thing to do in a humane and civilised society but it is also vital for the public health of our country.
Lola McEvoy is the GMB organiser