Full sick pay is essential to Covid safety

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Catering and cleaning staff in schools are more likely to catch Covid, but many do not receive access to full sick pay if they have to self-isolate. Jon Richards says this has to change


Teachers, leaders, governors and even academy trust boards are recognised as key to delivering education in schools.

But what about other staff, for instance those working in the background to keep your school clean or feed the pupils? How are they valued and what are the consequences?

Sadly, many schools have made clear how much they care by handing them over to private firms – mostly using the argument that these contractors will save them money.

Of course, the main way contracting companies achieve these “savings” and ensure that they make a profit is to offer their workers the lowest pay and cheapest conditions that they can get away with.

So while most catering and cleaning staff directly employed by schools are on pay set by national pay negotiations between employers and unions, vast numbers of catering and cleaning staff in schools who work for private companies will be earning significantly less; some will be on the government’s minimum wage of £8.72 an hour (less if they are under-25).

This has consequences. On average, these workers are more likely to live in a poorer area and closely to others. They are also more likely to be older and/or from BAME backgrounds. All these groups are at a higher risk of catching Covid-19 and getting a worse outcome (Sze et al, 2020).

So, it is hardly surprising that recent Office of National Statistics data (ONS, 2020) showed that catering and cleaning staff in schools were significantly more likely to test positive for Covid than teaching staff.

What you may not know is that for large numbers of contractor staff, if they go off sick or are asked to isolate by their schools due to a close possible Covid contact, they will only get statutory sick pay – not the full sick pay that directly employed staff get.

And because they are low paid there is a very good chance that they cannot afford to go off sick.

So, if you were in their shoes and a family member started to show symptoms – would you tell your employer, knowing that you are going to lose a significant chunk of your income?

The consequence of contractors’ tight-fisted approach to sick pay will have a direct impact on the spread of the infection and could mean that other staff and pupils are unnecessarily infected.

That is why we are running a campaign to get all contractors to pay full sick pay. It is not just the decent thing to do – it would mean that staff could isolate as they should and will help reduce the risk of infection.

A good number of the larger multi-academy trusts have already joined us in this campaign, which is great – but we want all schools to check with their contractors and ask them if they are paying full sick pay, and if not then why not? It is in all our interests that they do so.

We recognise that the Covid pandemic has hit some contractors hard, but we have also seen some dubious practices. A few companies that we know of have furloughed staff even though schools were still paying contract fees in full. And we are currently involved in a dispute with one contractor which is cutting staff hours and pay and conditions by 20 per cent, with some being moved to zero hours contracts, while at the same time paying a dividend to its owners of £140,000.

Across the country workload for many staff has increased hugely as demand for cleaning has increased and many catering staff have had to run staggered and extended lunch times to ensure that bubbles don’t mix.

The support staff in schools running these services are committed to their jobs and they know that, even though they are not in the classroom, the work they do is vital to schools, providing education and support to children and young people beginning their life journey.

They would be even happier if they were paid a decent wage, not punished for being ill and treated with respect

With many public services across the world deciding to bring their outsourced services back in house (Transnational Institute, 2020), maybe it is time for UK schools to catch up and bring staff back into direct employment. Let’s reunite the school team!


  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education at UNISON. Read his previous articles for SecEd via https://bit.ly/33KATZ0


Further information & resources

  • ONS: Coronavirus (Covid-19) Infection Survey, UK: 6 November 2020 (Section 9), November 6, 2020: https://bit.ly/32LCNsB
  • Sze et al: Ethnicity and clinical outcomes in Covid-19: A systematic review and meta-analysis, EClinical Medicine, November 12, 2020: https://bit.ly/3lzpdjp
  • Transnational Institute: The Future is Public, Kishimoto et al (eds) June 2020: www.tni.org/en/futureispublic


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