Coronavirus: Wages, sick pay and time off explained

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Millions of workers will soon be receiving their April pay packet, but many will be getting less than normal, as the economic realities of coronavirus bite.

Struggling companies and self-employed workers have been offered financial help by the government, to help keep their businesses afloat and staff paid during the coronavirus outbreak.

But, with millions on reduced wages, who is affected and what happens when workers fall ill?

Will my salary be paid?

If you work in the private sector, and pay tax through the pay-as-you-earn (PAYE) system, your employer can put you on furlough – essentially, lay you off temporarily – by applying for a government grant to pay 80% of your gross salary up to a limit of £2,500 per month.

  • What does it mean if I’ve been furloughed by work?

On the first day of the furlough scheme, about 185,000 firms applied, affecting 1.3 million workers and costing the Treasury £1.5bn.

Full and part-time employees are eligible, as are those on agency, flexible or zero-hour contracts.

The typical full-time worker is paid £585 a week, about £2,340 a month, using a median average – the middle point of all workers.

It is hoped the grants, available through Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by the end of April, will stop big redundancy announcements.

The money will be backdated to March and the scheme will last at least four months.

An employer still pays their staff, and can decide whether to pay in full or only the 80% of wages they can claim back from the government.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that 80% of businesses are interested in the scheme.

‘It is a relief to be paid’

Ria Fortin only started her job as a coordinator with Morepour, a cellar and bar installation and maintenance company, four months ago. Now, she has been furloughed.

“There was an intake of breath when I was paid. It was not as much as I have been used to,” says the 34-year-old, who has just bought a home with her self-employed partner.

“But it is a relief just to be paid. At least it is something. Other people are in a much worse situation.”

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Ria Fortin

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Ria Fortin says she feels lucky to still have her job

The company she works for is small, so she feels grateful to have been furloughed, rather than laid off, given that the hospitality industry may be one of the last to reopen.

The couple have organised payment holidays on regular bills, but know these will eventually have to be paid, so Ria – a former NHS worker – says they are very conscious of budgeting.

What if I’m self-employed?

If you are self-employed and have had a loss of income, you can receive a taxable grant of 80% of your average monthly profits over the past three years – up to a cap of £2,500 per month.

Initially, this will be available for three months in one lump-sum payment, payable from June.

You can access the coronavirus Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) as long as you traded in the past financial year, are still trading now and plan to continue doing so.

Most of your income needs to come from self-employment and your average trading profit needs to have been less than £50,000 a year.

If you became self-employed since April 2019, you will not receive any help under this scheme. This is because you haven’t yet have filed a tax return, which is needed to help calculate financial support.

HMRC will contact those who are eligible.

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What if the self-employed support scheme doesn’t cover me?

You will have to try to claim benefits – such as universal credit and/or contribution-based employment and support allowance (ESA).

In his recent Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said claimants could apply for ESA straight away, rather than waiting a week. He also temporarily removed the minimum income floor criteria for self-employed people – which looked at how much people could expect to earn in a month to calculate universal credit levels.

Self-employed people not covered by the SEISS can now access universal credit in full, potentially allowing them to receive a payment equivalent to statutory sick pay (SSP).

However, this does depend on your household’s financial situation. If you are already in receipt of other benefits, these could stop when applying for universal credit, so it may be worth getting some advice.

You can now apply on the phone or online, instead of having to attend a job centre.

Benefit levels have also been increased temporarily.

  • Rishi Sunak’s 2020 budget speech in full
  • What is universal credit?

What if I work in the public sector?

You should continue to work and have your wages paid as normal, even if you are home-working or have been told to work at another location temporarily.

What if I’m working from home?

If you can work from home, you should do so. Working hours can still be clearly defined.

Employers still have a duty of care and are responsible for any equipment they give you. The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service has set out guidance.

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What if I need to look after my children or a sick relative?

If you are an employee, your employer must give you time off in an emergency. But you might not get paid – it depends on the terms of your work contract.

However, many bosses during this period are allowing parents to work flexibly, to try to manage both work and childcare.

Will I be paid if I have to self-isolate or I am sick?

If you are an employee, any sick pay you may receive will depend on where you work.

Some workers’ contracts offer full pay to those off ill – albeit for a limited time.

If that time runs out, or if you don’t get paid sick leave in the first place, you should receive SSP.

The money – set at £95.85 a week – is paid by employers for up to 28 weeks. So if you are self-employed, you will not be eligible – but if you are a casual or agency worker, you will be.

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To receive SSP you need to be earning at least £120 a week. The ONS estimates there are 1,766,000 adult jobs in the UK that pay less than that amount – although some people will earn money from several jobs over the course of a week.

SSP can now be claimed from a person’s first day away from work, rather than the fourth day as before.

Anyone claiming should be able to get a sick note from the NHS’s 111 service rather than their GP.

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