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Low sick pay leaving school meals staff unable to self-isolate

Written by: Emma Lunn
Some of the biggest school catering companies are not giving full sick pay to staff, meaning that some of the lowest-paid staff in schools cannot afford to self-isolate if required to.

Thousands of school meals staff are being forced to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP) of just £96.35 a week if they have to self-isolate due to contracting Covid-19.

Union Unison has written to the 20 biggest catering companies to urge that they review their sick pay policies in order to help keep staff and pupils safe

Full sick pay would mean that employers continue to pay someone their full wage when they are off sick.

The union has found that all the companies have a turnover of more than £10m, and pay school catering staff the national minimum wage of £8.91 an hour.

For someone working in a school kitchen for 16 hours per week, the rate of full sick pay would be £142.56, compared to SSP of £96.35. For a full-time worker, full sick pay would equate to £267.30. 

If a full-time worker has to take time off to self-isolate and rely on SSP, they would lose up to £170.95 per week. SSP in the UK is one of the lowest in Europe. 

The letter from Unison tells catering employers: “Many staff feel they simply cannot afford to be sick, particularly if they personally are experiencing no, or only mild, symptoms. To ensure public health measures are followed we are calling on all employers to pay full occupational sick pay.”

The letter goes on to point out that, if a member of a catering team is infected with Covid-19 they are legally obligated to stay at home. 

The letter said: “To ensure this happens, they must be able to afford to stay at home. This means that they must know that, if they need to take time off sick, they will be paid full sick pay at the same rate they would be paid if they were at work.”

The union adds that it knows that those who work in kitchens are not highly paid and “often struggle to make ends meet at the best of times”.

Leigh Powell, Unison national officer, said: “Whatever way the school catering service is provided, it is paid for using public funds. Given the public health emergency facing the country, those in receipt of public funds should be taking every possible step to minimise the risk of the spread of Covid-19, including ensuring that employees receive full pay when they need to self-isolate.

“Without the security of full pay during periods of self-isolation, members of catering staff – often among the lowest-paid on the school site – are faced with an almost impossible decision: staying away from work when potentially infectious to protect others could mean many staff suffering financial hardship becoming reliant on SSP of £96.35 per week, if they qualify for it at all.”

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