Sick Pay? (or the Coronavirus Conundrum)

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Coronavirus (COVID-19) isn’t just a potential threat to your health; it could also mean that your earnings take a hit.

How so?

If you have to take time off from work (i.e. self-isolate yourself) because you have (or might have) been infected by the virus, will you be entitled to receive sick pay from the organisation that you are working for?

It depends very much on your employment status …

… if you are a zero hours worker or genuinely a self-employed person, the answer is an emphatic no.

If you are deemed to be an employee (an individual who works under a contract of service) within the meaning of Section 230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, you may be fortunate in that you have an entitlement to receive either contractual sick pay or statutory sick pay.

Contractual sick pay

If a contractual sick pay scheme applies to your employment, you might receive, at its fullest extent, 6 months full pay and then 6 months at half pay. This generous arrangement, of course, will not apply from day 1 of the employment and employees will have to build up their continuous service in order to be eligible for the maximum level of contractual sick pay. It is probably the case that an employee with just over a year’s service would receive 1 month at full pay for sickness absence and then 1 month at half pay.

An example of entitlement to contractual sick pay arrangements taken from the Collective Agreement (the National Working Practices Agreement) between Scottish Further Education lecturers and their employers can be seen below:

Statutory sick pay

What about statutory sick pay or SSP? This is relevant in situations where employees are not entitled to receive contractual sick pay.

It’s also worth pointing out that contractual sick pay is often much more generous than SSP and, even then, not all employees will be entitled to receive this benefit because they fall outside the eligibility criteria. The current weekly rate of sickness pay (in March 2020) is £98.25 and could be paid by employers for a maximum of 28 weeks.

Ordinarily, it becomes payable only from 4th day of sickness absence, but as of Wednesday 4th March 2020, the UK Government has announced that employees who self-isolate themselves because of suspected Coronavirus infection, will be paid SSP from day 1 of their sickness absence.

This is a temporary measure which will apply only for the duration of the current COVID-19 emergency, but people who are off sick with a medical condition other than the virus will also be entitled to benefit from these changes.

See links below to articles on the BBC website about sickness pay entitlement and COVID-19:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51628524

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51738837

The change in Government policy will not be extended to the self-employed; and to zero hours workers (who will not be able to meet the threshold conditions for eligibility). Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) has stated that as many as 2 million workers may not be eligible for SSP under the current system.

There has been some concern expressed that individuals in these categories may continue to go to work – if they have the virus or suspect as much – because they will not receive SSP during their absence.

Eligibility criteria for SSP

In 2019-20, in order to qualify for SSP you must be an employee earning at least £118 per week or £512 per month (before tax). This is known as the Lower Earnings Limit.

In April 2020, SSP will rise to £95.85 per week, but individuals’ earnings must fall within any of the following bands in order to qualify:

  • £120 per week
  • £520 per month
  • £6,240 per year

Again, this will mean that many zero hours contract workers will simply fail to qualify for SSP payments.

More problems …

There is also another complication concerning eligibility for sickness pay which the COVID-19 outbreak has raised:

Let’s assume that you do qualify for either contractual sick pay or SSP, but you have decided to take the precautionary measure of self-isolation so as not to expose your colleagues to potential risk.

It may be that you have recently returned from a destination such as China or Italy where the virus has been particularly prevalent and you decide to play it safe by not going into work. You contact your HR Department or employer to inform them of your decision; you are thanked for being extremely considerate and responsible; and then you are told that you are not entitled to receive sick pay because you haven’t actually been diagnosed with the virus.

Matt Hancock MP, UK Government Minister for Health, thinks that current legislation does cover such situations and individuals who take precautionary measures, as outlined above, should benefit from sick pay provisions.

With all due respect to Mr Hancock, what he thinks and what current legislation or a contract of employment states might be entirely different realities. That said, Mr Hancock does have the support of the highly regarded Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) which is recommending that employers pay self-isolating employees who have taken such a precautionary measure (see link below).

https://www.acas.org.uk/acas-publishes-new-advice-on-handling-coronavirus-at-work

Conclusion

Clearly, COVID-19 is presenting a number of challenges to traditional practices or orthodoxies in the field of employment law. This is a serious issue given that recent estimates are predicting that up to 20% of the UK workforce could be in danger of contracting the virus and, consequently, they will be absent from work.

In some respects, the UK Government has been caught napping on the issue of extending employment protection e.g. entitlement to sick pay to people who do not have a contract of service and the COVID-19 outbreak has really exposed this shortcoming.

As Jonathan Rennie of law firm, TLT, had noted (as recently as this week) the UK Government has failed to implement any of the recommendations of the Taylor Review which favoured extended employment protection to workers who did not have a contract of service. It is somewhat ironic that the virus outbreak has forced the Government to break cover and extend some employment protection rights.

A link to an article on the BBC website about the predicted impact of COVID-19 on the UK workforce can be found below:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51718917

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 4 March 2020

Published by

sjcrossan1

A legal blog by the author of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice (3rd Edition: 2017; Hodder Gibson) Sean J. Crossan BA (Hons), LLB (Hons), MSc, TQFE I have been teaching law in Higher and Further Education for nearly 25 years. I also worked as an employment law consultant in a Glasgow law firm for over a decade. I am also a trade union representative and continue to make full use of my legal background. I am a graduate and postgraduate of the Universities of Dundee, London and Strathclyde. Please note that this Blog provides a general commentary about issues in Scots Law. It is not intended as a substitute for in-depth legal advice. If you have a specific legal problem, you should always consult a suitably qualified Scottish solicitor who will be able to provide you with the support that you require.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s