Almost 400,000 zero-hours care workers could face coronavirus sick-pay risks, unions warn

Almost 400,000 care workers helping England’s vulnerable and elderly adults are on zero-hours contracts, which unions argue could discourage those infected with coronavirus from staying off work.

Activists and the Labour Party have called on the Government to step in to ensure care workers with uncontracted hours are entitled to sick pay after no specific new measures were announced during the Chancellor’s Budget.

The latest figures from charity Skills for Care show there were 370,000 people working on zero-hours contracts in adult social care in England in 2019 – 24% of the 1.5 million-strong workforce.

Figures show 1.2 million of the workforce provided direct care to vulnerable clients, helping wash, dress or feed them, including carers and home helpers.

Currently, only workers with average weekly earnings of at least £118 are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, which is worth £94.25 per week.

But the Trades Union Congress says a third of people on zero-hours contracts do not earn enough to qualify, as they may not work enough hours or find their hours vary week-by-week.

Zero-hours arrangements are most common among domiciliary workers, who travel between people’s homes to provide care – and 43% of these workers were on these contracts.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the system could “scarcely be better designed to encourage the spread of the virus”.

The Government says it has introduced measures to make claiming benefits such as Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance easier for those who are not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay.

But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady (pictured) said “relying on our broken benefits system is not the solution”.

She called on the Government to make Statutory Sick Pay available for all workers, and to increase it to at least the level of the Living Wage.

Unison, the public sector union, echoed the call, arguing workers on zero-hours contracts or those juggling several low-paid jobs were “falling through the gaps”.

Assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Care workers support some of the most vulnerable in society.

“Those worried they’ve got the virus should be able to stay at home without fear their families will go hungry.”

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced a package of measures to address the spread of Covid-19 in his first Budget.

These included extra funding for the NHS, and the introduction of sick notes obtainable through NHS 111.

Mr Sunak said the outbreak would have a “significant impact” on the UK economy, but that the Government was doing everything it can to “keep this country and our people healthy and financially secure”.

But Mr Corbyn said the Government had failed to address an impending “crisis” in social care.

“Underpaid care workers travel from house to house to provide care to elderly and sick people,” he said.

“It is a model that could scarcely be better designed to encourage the spread of the virus.

“So, it is vital that the Government ensures care workers do not lose out for staying away from work if they experience symptoms.”

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