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

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

School meal worker serving children

Twenty 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 because they’re being forced to rely on statutory sick pay (SSP).

Statutory sick pay is just £96.35 a week, whereas full sick pay would mean that employers continue to pay someone their full wage when they are off sick.

As schools reopen this January and the country tries to protect itself against further spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, UNISON has written to the 20 biggest companies to urge that they review their sick pay policies so staff can afford to self-isolate.

The union has found that all the companies have a turnover of over £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 the virus, they must stay at home. “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.

“With the huge rises in the cost of living facing catering staff, particularly for heating their homes and buying food, many are facing harsh choices this winter.” 

UNISON national officer Leigh Powell 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”.

And Ms Powell continued by noting that in the fight against COVID-19, it is vital to remove any financial barriers to individual compliance for staff where they exist.

”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.”