The coronavirus outbreak has reached the UK, with 115 people having tested positive for COVID-19, as of 9am on March 5, 2019. With some people needing to self-isolate in a bid to contain the virus and stop it spreading further, Citizens Advice is urging the government to protect millions of workers who may be pushed into financial hardship by government advice to self-isolate during the coronavirus.
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This includes more than five million self-employed workers, and at least 1.5 million low-income jobs that fall below the earnings limit to qualify for statutory sick pay.
Plans published by the government on Tuesday revealed that up to a fifth of the workforce may be off sick during the peak of a coronavirus epidemic.
Amid the outbreak, Citizens Advice warns that agency workers and people on zero-hour contracts may also be unclear of their eligibility for sick pay.
In addition to releasing its warning, the charity has shared the story of one person who works part time, and receives Universal Credit.
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Sheila, 64, explained that she works 10 hours each week, and has previously been paid when bouts of ill-health have caused her to be unable to work, with this payment being at her manager’s discretion.
However, she now fears what would happen should she end up testing positive for coronavirus.
Sheila said: “I am contracted to work 10 hours a week and when I have previously been sick for a few days, my manager has paid me but said it was at their discretion.
“If I did get coronavirus I am not sure if I would get paid or if I can get Statutory Sick Pay.
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“Financially I couldn’t even afford to be off work.
“I’m already struggling to pay my bills and afford to eat as it is, so having even less money would be an absolute nightmare.”
Citizens Advice is calling for the government to “promote and clarify sick pay rights, in particular for agency workers and people on zero-hour contracts, as well as for those who self-isolate”.
The charity is also urging the government to “make sure people can access quick financial support if they are not eligible for statutory sick pay, for example if they are self-employed”.
Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said: “No one should fear getting ill or risk their health because they won’t be able to pay their bills, but this will be the reality for millions of workers if the coronavirus outbreak worsens.
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“Problems with our system for sick pay are long-standing.
“Even for those eligible for statutory sick pay, at just £400 a month it may not be enough to cover essential living costs, leaving them with the impossible choice of ignoring advice to self isolate or continuing to work while unwell.
“The government must clarify sick pay rights for workers and ensure the benefits system can respond flexibly so that people have enough to make ends meet if they do fall ill.”
Earlier this week, the DWP confirmed that employers have been urged to make sure they use their discretion and respect the medical need to self-isolate in making decisions about sick pay.
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Those on zero hours contracts and “gig” workers may be entitled to sick pay. More information on eligibility can be found at Gov.uk’s Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) section.
People who are prevented from working because of a risk to public health are able to claim Universal Credit and/or contributory Employment and Support Allowance, the DWP said.
The DWP explained that Universal Credit is designed to adjust depending on people’s earnings or other income. If a person is self-isolating and doing less hours, they are directed to let the DWP know via their online journal.
A DWP spokesperson 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.
“Anyone not eligible to receive sick pay is able to claim Universal Credit and/or contributory Employment and Support Allowance.”