600k festive workers ineligible for self-isolation sick pay, union warns

Staff in low-paid sectors who do not meet minimum earnings threshold could lose out on SSP over the Christmas period, as experts lament ‘broken’ system

Nearly 650,000 festive workers are not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), a union has said, warning that many low-paid workers vital to the Christmas economy could be left to face the choice of breaking self-isolation rules or missing out on earnings.

Analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), conducted by the TUC, revealed one in six (238,000) hospitality workers – which the union noted was one of the key sectors involved in Christmas festivities – were not eligible for statutory sick pay.

In addition, one in 10 (336,000) retail workers and one in eight (73,000) arts workers – two other sectors where Christmas is a peak period – also earned under the £120 per week minimum threshold to qualify for the benefit.

The findings come as new rules have been introduced to tackle the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which requires workers to isolate for 10 days if they have been in contact with someone with the virus.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, warned that the current SSP system was putting Christmas celebrations in jeopardy.

“We all risk having our Christmas ruined because our sick pay system doesn’t do what’s needed to stop the virus spreading,” she said. “Our sick pay system is broken. No one should be left to choose between doing the right thing or putting food on the table.”

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O’Grady called on ministers to extend SSP to all workers, and ensure that workers are paid the equivalent of the Living Wage, which amounts to £346 per week, if they are asked to isolate.

Currently SSP pays out £96.35 a week and is only available to workers who have been told to self-isolate if they meet the earnings threshold.

Mike Brewer, deputy chief executive at the Resolution Foundation, said that SSP in the UK was “low by international standards and misses out two million of our lowest-paid workers”.

The findings were “of particular concern given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the rising number of cases of the new Omicron variant, as evidence suggests that low or non-existent sick pay may prevent workers from self-isolating when required to do so,” he said.

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the government introduced a temporary scheme in September 2020, designed to support those on low incomes who are required to self-isolate. The £500 Test and Trace Support Payment, which has been running since September 2020, is available to workers who apply through their local council.

However, Freedom of Information requests sent by the TUC found that two-thirds (64 per cent) of applications for the scheme have been rejected. A TUC survey conducted in May 2021 also found that just one in five workers (21 per cent) had heard of the scheme.

Brewer said that it was “an immediate priority” for the government to provide short-term support for workers, but added that long-term change is needed: “We must reform Statutory Sick Pay to ensure that all those who need it are covered, and to ensure that the amount people receive while on it is adequate to their needs.”

Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser at the CIPD, also called for SSP to be increased to the National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage. “Not only would these changes help to protect the most vulnerable workers from financial hardship, they'd help employers to better attract and retain staff too,” she said.

"It's unacceptable that so many workers in some of our lowest-paid sectors don't qualify for statutory sick pay; these are workers who are most in need of a financial safety net should they fall ill and be unable to work.”