Analysis by the TUC has found that 647,000 workers in the hospitality, retail, arts and entertainment sectors – industries key to Christmas festivities – get no statutory sick pay.
Ahead of the Christmas period, amid growing Covid cases and uncertainty around the Omicron variant, the TUC warned that the research is especially relevant as large numbers face having to isolate over the next month.
New Covid restrictions, introduced as a result of the spread of the new variant in the UK, now require anyone coming into contact with a confirmed Omicron case to self-isolate for ten days even if they have been vaccinated.
“Every worker should have the security of sick pay if they fall ill or need to isolate. But while we’re out celebrating and buying presents, many workers who make that possible get no sick pay protection at all,” Frances O’Grady said.
As well as not being available to many workers, the UK has the least generous sick pay in Europe at just £96.35 a week. It is only available to employees who earn £120 per week or more due to the ‘lower earnings limit’.
The TUC has called on ministers to extend statutory sick pay protection to every worker by removing the lower earnings limit and to increase statutory sick pay to at least the value of the real living wage.
O’Grady described the sick pay system in the UK as “broken”, adding: “No one should be left to choose between doing the right thing or putting food on the table. And we all risk having our Christmas ruined because our sick pay system doesn’t do what’s needed to stop the virus spreading.”
The TUC found that many of those who will be expected to isolate have no access to statutory sick pay. According to its research, 238,000 hospitality workers (16%), 336,000 retail staff (10%) and 73,000 (12%) of those in the arts and entertainment sector do not get sick pay while self-isolating.
The analysis shows the only other sector of the economy with a higher proportion of workers who do not qualify for statutory sick pay is those employed by households, such as domestic cleaners at 32%.
Research published by the TUC in June found that extending statutory sick pay protection to all workers, by removing the lower earnings limit, would cost the same as 1% of the budget provided for the NHS test and trace programme.
The trade union federation found that as many as one in 12 key workers do not qualify, included more than a quarter of cleaners (27%) and retail workers (26%), nearly one in ten teaching assistants (9%) and over one in 20 care workers (6%).
TUC-commissioned polling carried out in May also saw 33% of key workers report that they receive less sick pay than their full rate of pay while 24% of respondents said that they get only the £96 per week statutory minimum.
Fabian Society research this summer showed that the cost of raising sick pay to the equivalent of the real living wage for employers without an occupational sick pay scheme would be around £110 per employee per year, or just over £2 a week.
Labour has repeatedly criticised ministers for “not paying people decent sick pay to isolate themselves”, while a TUC study last year found that 43% of people in the UK could not afford to stay away from work after contracting Covid.
Head of the government’s test and trace system Dido Harding raised concerns herself early in the pandemic about the absence of support for people facing the need to take time off work to protect others from the virus.
“It’s particularly challenging for that workforce,” she told a press briefing in July. “I continue to make the case that we need to think about how we support people in those lowest paid roles and the self-employed.”
The government introduced the NHS test and trace support payment of £500 for people in England required to self-isolate, who are unable to work from home during their period of self-isolation and will lose money as a result.
A freedom of information request revealed in June this year that more than six out of ten applications for payment were being refused, despite the government having increased funding for the system in March to £20m per month.