Up to a fifth of the UK working population could be off sick at the height of a coronavirus epidemic, according to the government, but what rights do you have if you can’t work or self-isolate to avoid catching or spreading the virus?
If you are not sick but your boss tells you not to come to work, you should get your usual pay. But there are few protections in place for those who self-isolate.
There is no statutory right to pay if you are not sick but can't work because a medical expert has advised you to self-isolate or go into quarantine. According to Unison, up to two million workers with no sick pay may not be able to afford to two weeks off work if they develop symptoms.
People who are abroad in an affected area and are not allowed to travel back to the UK also do not have a legal right to be paid.
Employers therefore have discretion to apply their own pay policies. They could pay statutory minimum sick pay or anything up to full wages for several months.
Employment dispute resolution service Acas says employers must resolve workers' genuine concerns about the virus. This could mean offering flexible working for example.
If an employee still does not want to go in, they may be able to arrange with to take the time off as holiday or unpaid leave but the employer does not have to agree to this.
If an employee refuses to attend work, it could result in disciplinary action.
Time off to look after someone
You are entitled to time off if you have a dependent who needs you in an emergency, for example if your child’s school is closed or they are sick and you need to look after them.
Number of weeks you may have to wait to claim Universal Credit if you are out of work
The amount of time off must be “reasonable” and there is no statutory right to pay for this. Check your employment contract or human resources department.
If you contract the virus
Employees have legal rights to sick pay but the amount they get is likely to be far below their wages if they work full-time.
The statutory minimum sick pay is £94.25 if you are sick for 4 full days or more in a row and earn on average at least £118 per week before tax.
However, many organisations offer their staff sick pay which goes beyond this.
What about zero-hours and gig economy workers?
Agency workers, casual worker and workers on zero hours contracts are likely to be entitled to receive at least statutory sick pay.
Weekly statutory sick pay
“If you are off sick with coronavirus, your entitlements depend on your type of employment and what is in your contract,” says Tom Neil, senior advisor at Acas.
Gig economy workers are typically classified as self-employed meaning they are not eligible for statutory sick pay. Insurance policies for accident, illness and unemployment may cover wages lost to coronavirus infection.
Sickness cover is unlikely to cover the cost of self-isolation or loss of earnings if work dries up because people are staying home in response to the virus.
If you have this kind of protection policy, check what cover you have with your insurer.
Uber’s “partner protection” policy, for example covers severe sickness and injury if a medical practitioner signs a driver off for over seven days. From day eight, drivers are eligible for a daily payment for up to 15 days.
Work and pensions minister, Justin Tomlinson, attracted criticism when he suggested people rely on benefits if they could not work during the outbreak.
“Those whose employers ask them to stay away from the workplace due to coronavirus concerns, who do not qualify for Statutory Sick Pay, may be able to claim Universal Credit and/or new-style employment and support allowance,” he said.
Universal Credit claimants have to wait up to five weeks for their first payment, however. Given that the government forecasts up to one fifth of the workforce is forecast to be off sick meaning that a significant number of people could struggle to make ends meet.
People with no sick pay who may not be able to afford two weeks of self-isolation
Alternatively, workers who are unable to work because of a health condition can claim employment and support allowance but only if they have paid National Insurance for the last two to three years.
The rate for the first 13 weeks is up to £57.90 per week if your aged under 25 or up to £73.10 for over-25s. It then rises to as much as £111.65 depending on individual circumstances.
A spokesperson for the UK government’s Department for Work and Pensions said: “Our staff are ready to support people if they are affected – we urge them to contact us by phone, or their work coach via their online journal, to explain their situation.
If people have to stay home on less than full pay, more people will get into debt. The Money and Pensions Service estimates that 16.7 million people are struggling or squeezed, and these may be particularly unlikely to have financial resilience to get through a period of reduced income.
“It often only takes one knock to income to push people into problem debt," says Sue Anderson, of StepChange debt charity.
“Once the immediate threat of coronavirus does pass, it really must be a long term policy goal to improve financial resilience and the way that the welfare system works so that more people are better able to weather short-term financial shocks without being tipped into problem debt.”
Further advice on managing debt is available on StepChange’s website: https://www.stepchange.org/