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Updated on Mar 7, 2020. Posted on Mar 6, 2020

This Care Worker Is Worried She Won’t Be Able To Pay Her Rent If She Needs To Self-Isolate Over Coronavirus

The woman told BuzzFeed News she'll do whatever it takes to protect the older people she cares for. But statutory sick pay won’t be enough to cover her living costs.

Yui Mok / PA

Care workers in the UK are fearful they won’t be able to make ends meet if they do the right thing and self-isolate due to the coronavirus.

More than a million people across the country work in adult social care; these are often low-paid, part-time jobs that require high skills in caring for vulnerable people.

But if they are told to self-isolate for two weeks to limit the spread of coronavirus, many will not receive full sick pay from their employers. Instead they will have to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP), which is the minimum that employers have to pay out.

This is worth £94.25 a week — which for most workers is not enough to cover living costs. And many others don’t earn enough to qualify for SSP at all.

BuzzFeed News spoke to one woman called Cheryl* who works in a care home for elderly people in southwest England. She is in her fifties and works between two and three shifts a week, earning around £750 a month, as well as receiving a small pension from her late husband.

Her job involves doing activities with the residents, washing their clothes and bedsheets, serving dinner, and helping them get ready for bed in the evenings. She said it is hard work but very rewarding.

Yet she is aware that the residents she cares for are most at risk of the coronavirus due to their age, particularly those with diabetes and other underlying health conditions. She said she would not hesitate to self-isolate if it meant helping to protect their health.

But this will come at a personal cost: “I would really struggle, my rent is about £500 a month. My biggest worry is that I could lose my home — I just hope my letting agent would be understanding but I don’t know.

“I’m not worried about the actual illness, it’s really just the money side.”

The government announced this week that SSP would be paid from day one of illness or self-isolation, rather than day four as before. But this would not go far enough for care workers like Cheryl who will struggle to get by on £94.25 a week.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has said the rate of SSP is “inadequate to meet basic living standards” and among the lowest in western Europe.

Meanwhile, those earning less than £118 a week are not eligible for SSP at all — with women and those working irregular hours on zero-hour contracts most affected. Ministers have pledged that these people will receive help through the benefits system if they need to self-isolate, but it is not clear how much money they will receive.

Government advice is that people should go into self-isolation — effectively quarantine themselves at home — for 14 days if they have come into contact with an infected person. That means a care worker like Cheryl could be forced to stay off work if either a resident or fellow staff member shows symptoms of coronavirus, or if she falls ill herself.

Campaigners believe the arrival of coronavirus in the UK has shone a spotlight on rules around sick pay for low-paid workers that should have been examined by the government a long time ago.

Trade union Unison is calling on companies to pay workers their full wage when they self-isolate. Assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Care workers employed by private companies are caught between a rock and a hard place.

“If they don’t work they may not get paid, putting their livelihoods at risk. But they also know there’s a threat to those they care for if they soldier on.

“Bosses must follow government advice and pay workers who do the right thing and self-isolate. Safety must come before profit.”

A government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "We have a safety net that helps people facing hardship if they cannot work and need to self-isolate for two weeks."

They said many employers paid more than the statutory rate, and anyone not entitled to SSP could claim Universal Credit.

*Names have been changed


Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Emily Ashton at emily.ashton@buzzfeed.com.

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