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Throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, huge parts of our working lives have come up for re-examination. The common-sense that being in the office was the same as being at work, became very old fashioned very quickly.

Flexi-time became the norm in many office-based jobs as employers sought to accommodate staff who were working from home, while looking after children whose schools were closed.

A dated, regressive and ultimately unhelpful attitude prevailed, however, when it came to an aspect of pandemic response which seems almost too obvious to mention - sick pay.

Ever since the current system of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) was introduced in 1983, an unspoken but constant assumption has dominated it’s operation - if sick pay is too generous, workers will stay home, when they should really be working.

Hazy notions of ‘pulling a sickie’ or feigning an illness, loom large in any discussion of sick pay and often employers seek exhaustive evidence for any illness. Much better to have a few staff in with the sniffles, than to risk paying out when not absolutely needed.

The level of statutory sick pay reflects this thinking.

At £95.85 per week, statutory sick pay amounts to slightly more than a day’s pay for a full time worker on the minimum wage. Even then the worker is not eligible until the fourth day of absence and if their earnings have not averaged at least £120 per week from that employer for the past 8 weeks - they are not eligible at all.

(A particularly bizarre feature of the current system is that if you have earned an average of £120/week from more than one employer over the past 8 weeks, you can claim more than one lot of Statutory Sick Pay.)

SSP then does not map on to the modern economy in a way that makes a huge amount of sense. Like much of our employment conditions is was designed for a particular type of worker, with particular work patterns and with particular incentives in mind:

Give the full-time permanent staff just enough to keep them going when ill, but not so much that they shirk their shifts when not absolutely necessary.

As the TUC have noted, many workers do not qualify and, unsurprisingly, women, ethnic minority workers, younger workers, the lowest paid and those in insecure work are the least likely to qualify.

Many higher paid professionals will likely see these conditions and immediately spot the discordance with their own conditions. Again the TUC notes that as workers move up the pay scale they are more and more likely to receive sick pay on terms that is more generous and more flexible than that statutory minimum.

The current system therefore, has been iniquitous, poorly organised and ill-suited to the nature of modern work as most people experience it for sometime. Covid 19 however, has brought into focus an even more concerning aspect - our current sick-pay landscape discourages workers from keeping their colleagues and customers safe.

The infectious nature of COVID 19 is what has led to its devastating impact on the world for the past 2 years. Once infected with COVID 19, carriers are often contagious well before they show symptoms, well before they feel unwell and well before they would naturally consider taking time off of work.

When this epidemiological reality meets the logic of our system of sick pay, a terrible situation in created. A situation where doing the responsible thing - isolating early, attempting to prevent spreading the infection - is punished most harshly; and where the punishment - lost wages - is felt most acutely by the workers who are most likely to be infected and to cause more infections - key workers.

The UK Government has recognised this perverse outcome, at least partially.

The waiting period for sick pay has been suspended for those who have been forced to self-isolate due to COVID 19 (so long as the isolation period is longer than 4 days), a £500 Test and Trace Support Payment has been available to those in England and Wales and a few other rough edges of the system have been smoothed down for the purposes of the pandemic.

These tinkerings reveal a greater truth, however.

They reveal that our system of sick pay does not work but can be patched up when the stakes are high.

This simply isn’t good enough.

A well run country and a well organised economy cannot operate on the basis that our systems don’t usually work, but can be patched up when absolutely required.

Systems of social support have to be reliable - they have to work all the time and they have to work best for those who need them most.

Fortunately the TUC have put together a suite of changes that would bring Sick Pay into the 21st century. Their #SickPayForAll campaign is pushing for the changes that we need to get sick pay in working order. You can support the campaign here.

Blog by Martin Lennon, Solicitor

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