Unions call for sick pay for outsourced workers in suspected coronavirus cases

Hospital cleaning and catering staff face ‘awful choice’ between losing wages and risking infecting others, says GMB

Employers have been urged to provide full sick pay to all outsourced workers in suspected cases of coronavirus, as the number of confirmed cases in the UK jumps to 36.

One of the UK’s largest trade unions, GMB, has called on NHS trusts that use agency staff, including cleaners, porters and catering workers, to make sure these often low-paid individuals are not out of pocket if they have to take time off. This would hopefully dissuade those potentially infected with the virus, also known as Covid-19, from coming to work, it said.

GMB said the majority of companies providing these services to hospitals did not provide more than statutory sick pay, which only kicks in after someone is off work for three days and is just £94.25 a week.

Lola McEvoy, a GMB organiser, said outsourced staff were “being left with an awful choice” of either coming into work when sick or losing their pay. “It means workers are constantly coming into hospitals when ill. That’s a terrible risk to patient safety at the best of times – but in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, it becomes a national crisis,” she said.

Although experts have said it is best practice for employers to pay workers who have self-isolated, there is currently no legal obligation to do so.

Separately, the TUC has called on the government to extend statutory sick pay so it is paid from the first day of an absence, to scrap the minimum earnings threshold – currently £118 a week – and ensure workers who self-isolate are still paid.

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The union estimated nearly two million UK workers did not qualify for sick pay currently – including one in 10 working women and nearly a quarter of those on zero-hours contracts.

"People shouldn't feel scared about self-isolating because of money worries. Sick pay should kick in from the first day of absence," said TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.

"The threat of coronavirus shows why sick pay should be a day-one right for everybody. It's not right that millions of UK workers miss out on this protection. The government must ensure everyone gets statutory sick pay, however much they earn."

Last week (27 February) JD Wetherspoon became one of the first major employers to explicitly outline a policy stating staff would be subject to regular statutory sick pay rules if they self-isolated owing to coronavirus. Of its 45,000 employees, the pub chain has a large number of low-paid, part-time staff affected by the rules on statutory sick pay.

"Coronavirus is being treated like any other illness,” a Wetherspoon spokesperson said.

The UK has seen a spike in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, with Public Health England warning that widespread transmission of the virus was now “highly likely”.

Prime minister Boris Johnson will today (2 March) chair a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee to decide a plan for tackling the spread of the virus. This could include closing down schools, banning mass gatherings and calling on people to avoid public transport.

The current advice is for people to wash their hands regularly and thoroughly, and for anyone who suspects they may have symptoms to stay at home and call 111.