Dozens of trade unions and charities have urged the government to raise the UK’s “miserly” sick pay rate to the living wage and scrap loopholes that penalise low-paid workers.
Employees who fall ill in Britain can rely on a statutory sick pay floor of just £99.35 a week or less than £20 a day – the lowest defined rate in any European country.
One third of workers are paid the low rate, and a million of the very lowest paid are denied support entirely because they do not meet an arbitrary earnings threshold.
32 organisations including the Trades Union Congress (TUC), unions such as Unite, UNISON, and Usdaw, as well as major charities such as Scope, Mind, Child Poverty Action Group and Disability Rights UK say the system needs a major overhaul.
They say the rate should be increased to the living wage, which is currently £10.90 an hour or £436 for a 40-hour work week. That rate set by an independent commission at a rate designed to meet basic living costs.
They are also calling on the government to scrap the minimum earnings threshold to qualify for sick pay, and to end a rule that requires people to be off sick for three days before they can claim sick pay.
This latter rule was suspended for the Covid-19 pandemic but later reintroduced by ministers.
“None of us wants to get sick, but if we do, we all want to know a safe sick pay system exists so we can make ends meet,” said Amanda Walters, campaign director of the Safe Sick Pay Campaign.
“The current sick pay system means that for millions of workers, getting ill means worrying about not being able to pay the bills.
“The cost of living crisis will mean that even more of us will feel we have no choice but to try to work through illness, rather than taking the time needed to get better.
“The Government must urgently create a safe sick pay system that supports workers, employers and public health.”
Across Europe most countries ensure workers are paid a percentage of their normal salary if they fall sick. For example, in Iceland, employees are entitled to 12 days at 100 per cent pay, with a lower benefit kicking in after this.
Sweden pays employees 80 per cent of their salary for up to a year if they fall ill, while German workers can expect a minimum of 70 per cent of their normal wages.
TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak said the UK system created a “huge sick pay class divide” and that those on low paid lost out most from the setup.
“The pandemic should have marked a turning point, but again and again ministers chose to turn a blind eye to our broken sick pay system,” he said.
Vicki Nash, a director of policy and campaigns at the mental health charity Mind, described the current system as “outdated and unfair”.
“If the UK government is serious about closing the disability-employment gap, our SSP system needs to work flexibly and reliably for us all,” she said.
“This means no longer disincentivising people taking time off sick when they need it by making us wait until the third consecutive day of sickness to start receiving it.
“The Government temporarily lifted this harmful three day wait at the height of the pandemic. Now it must be scrapped permanently.”
The organisations have asked for a meeting with work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith to discuss their ideas for reforms.
Asked about the demands for change, a DWP spokesperson suggested people who fell ill should try to claim benefits.
“For anyone with a disability or long-term health condition there is a strong financial safety net provided through the welfare system, including ESA and Universal Credit, and through employer-paid Statutory Sick Pay,” the spokesperson told The Independent.
“Personal Independence Payment [PIP] is also available for those who have a daily living and/or mobility needs for three months, and are expected to have these for at least another nine months.
“PIP assessments are carried out by trained healthcare professionals, who carefully consider how an individual’s disability or long-term health condition impacts their day-to-day life.”