Everything you need to know about sick days during the coronavirus

Update, 20/03/2020 - We'll try to keep this up to date, but for the very latest on government announcements regarding coronavirus, you're best checking in on Gov.UK's coronavirus page.

Many of us are thinking about sick days at the moment, with the coronavirus spreading around the world.

It’s a time of great uncertainty - we might not get it, we might all get it, and nobody quite knows how it’ll all pan out.

What we do know is that the novel coronavirus and the flu-like illness it causes (COVID-19) is causing a big strain on the healthcare system, travel is hugely disrupted, and many people are going to need time off work.  

So while we’re not epidemiologists, we can at least shine a light on how sick days work and what employees and companies need to know about them with regards to the coronavirus.

For employees

Should I call in sick if I think I’ve got the coronavirus?

Yes, but the first thing you should do if you suspect you’ve caught it is visit NHS online for guidance. Don’t go to your GP, pharmacy or hospital - visit the website first to see what your next steps should be.

Going into the office should be avoided unless absolutely necessary during this time. Stay in touch with your workplace and check the Government guidelines on what to do - they're being updated almost every day.

The most important thing is avoid all in-person contact until you've been given clear guidance on what to do next.

What are sick pay entitlements in the UK?

SSP (Statutory Sick Pay) is the minimum legal amount that your employer gives as sick pay.

SSP for full-time employees is £94.25 per week, for up to 28 weeks.

The rules are different for contractors, zero-hour contractors, casual workers, agency workers, and some other employment types - check out Gov.UK to confirm if you’re affected.

The rules are also different for part-time workers - see below for more information.

SSP is normally paid when you’re off sick for 4 days in a row (including non-working days). However, on 4th March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that Statutory Sick Pay will commence from the first day you are sick, rather than the fourth.

The adjustment is a temporary measure, and will be back to normal when the government decides it’s appropriate.

(If you come into work and work for more than a minute before going home sick, that won’t count as a sick day.)

SSP is paid by employers and so it’s under their discretion to know why their staff are off work.

On the 11th March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak's Budget announced further provisions in light of the virus:

Statutory sick pay will be paid to all those who are advised to self-isolate, even if they have not presented with symptoms.
Self-employed workers who are not eligible for sick pay will be able to claim contributory Employment Support Allowance.
Firms with fewer than 250 staff will be refunded for sick pay payments for two weeks.

What sick pay entitlements do part-time employees have?

(Please note: this information is subject to change over the coming weeks - the latest information will always be at Gov.UK)

If you’re a part-time worker, you still have rights when it comes to sick days. For those working less than 35 hours a week, you’re eligible for SSP (statutory sick pay).

If you earn above £118 per week, have been with the company for more than 3 months, and become ill for 4 or more days in a row, you’re eligible. (You must be an actual employee, not just a contractor). This 4 days is reduced to 1 day if you're self-isolating due to COVID-19 (coronavirus).

The amount of SSP a worker should be paid is £94.25 per week, and they’ll get this for up to 28 weeks. (Read more on our guide to part time sick pay entitlements).

It’s not much at all, and unfortunately paying the minimum amount of sick pay will incentivise workers to come into work when they’re sick - bad news during an infectious virus outbreak.

Can you take a sick day as a holiday?

You can - there’s no law saying you can’t -  but it’s not always a good idea. You can always ask for sick days you’ve taken to be turned into holidays, but this is generally done for shorter absences.

It can also reduce the amount of sick days on your record - something we think shouldn’t be a concern unless your company is still in the dark ages using the Bradford Factor.

In the case of the Coronavirus, you’re not going to be taking a day or two off. You’ll be off for least a few weeks after you start showing symptoms, during which you’ll have to self-isolate or be quarantined.

So it’s not really an appropriate time to start using leave, although if you’re only paid SSP (statutory sick pay) and you need a bump in income, you might be allowed to utilise it. As for managers saying you have to take leave while you’re off sick? They can’t.

Is remote work a possible solution?

It certainly is. We’re big on remote work at Timetastic, and although regular face-to-face time is really important, remote can be a massive upgrade to quality of life for many workers.

There’s lots of chatter out there about it being a necessity during times of enforced isolation. Companies are already cancelling travel and enforcing work-from-home for those who are able.

We’ve done a deep-dive into making the switch to remote work long-term, including pros, cons and the best places to do it.

But if you’re genuinely sick, don’t try to work from home. Take time to rest and recover, or else it’ll just keep you unwell for longer.

In the meantime, if you’re avoiding the office for a while, it's going to be a challenge staying safe, sane and productive while working from home. As long as we're not in mandatory lockdown, you should at least be able to spend time in small groups or go for a walk in the park with a friend. Video calls with friends and colleagues aren't a perfect solution but they can bring some much-needed social contact to your day.

Just remember to keep in touch with your team, be disciplined with your time management and get in as much physical exercise as possible.

For companies

The above information should be a useful primer on what employees will expect should they need time off, and what your legal obligations are. A few more important points:

Get things written down

Now’s a superb time to review your absence policy. And if you don’t have one, make one!

Absence policies don’t have to be long and complicated - they just need to document what happens when someone’s off sick.

It should include things like:

  • How and when the company is to be notified of absence
  • Rules around return-to-work interviews (when they’re arranged, what their intention is, etc)
  • How attendance records are kept (systems and who’s responsible for them)
  • Disciplinary procedures related to absence; consequences of not adhering to the policy or being absent for too long
  • Exemptions and accommodations for pregnancy-related illness, disabilities and terminal illness

Making one now is a good opportunity to make your coronavirus guidance official.

Most importantly, it’s a written document that everyone can refer to in times of uncertainty. It protects the company from anyone misusing your trust, and keeps things fair for everyone.

See our guide on how to create an effective sickness absence policy for more information and some handy free templates.

Keep in touch

Make sure you keep in contact with employees who are away from the office - remote work can be really lonely, and so can sickness.

With the prospect of up to 14 days enforced isolation for Coronavirus sufferers, that’s a huge chunk of time to spend alone.

Even the most homely of introverts will start to go a bit cuckoo being alone for that long.

So make sure to check in with them every few days, in a compassionate and caring way. And don't try to nudge them back to work sooner than they should.

Just make sure you’re doing things by the book. Checking in is fine, and maybe asking for a forgotten password or something, but asking for a phone consultation with someone who’s off sick isn’t fair. For a bit more guidance on what’s appropriate and what isn’t, see our guide to contacting employees when they’re off sick.