The unintended consequence of not paying sick pay

By Stephen Kellett
6 March, 2020

Setting the scene

I wrote this several years ago but it never became published. Reading it now it still seems to be valid. Even more so with coronavirus in the news.

Odds are that if you are reading this and you are an IT professional this situation doesn’t apply to you. You are either employed in a full time permanent position (you receive sick pay) or you are a contractor (you provide your own sick pay – it’s a risk you take). This article is the result of a discussion with a friend. We are both based in the UK. In your country the legal aspects may be different but the principle remains.

However if you are a part time employee you may not be paid sick pay. I found this out when chatting with a friend of mine about one of their part time jobs (they have several, one main one to provide an income backbone and two others to ring the changes so they don’t do one type of work all the time).

I know this person really well. Conscientious, hard working, honest, caring, won’t accept jobs they can’t do well, etc. The type of person you want working for you. A string of events have happened to them recently that make them doubt their current main employer. First the employer won’t delegate and gets over stressed as a result. This then leads to the employer bad mouthing the staff to other people (which it turns out have been friends of some of the staff and in one case a customer – ooops!). This gets back to the staff and is seriously demoralising, especially when it’s unjustified.

Then recently my friend was ill for about a week. When they received their pay their pay they found out that they had not been paid for the days they took sick. You can imagine how this made them feel – not very valued by their employer. This has caused a lot of upset (and financial harm) to this person.

This raises some interesting questions.

  1. What do you gain/lose by paying sick pay?
  2. What do you gain/lose by not paying sick pay?

I’ve posed the questions in this way because this is surely the reasoning behind choosing not to pay sick pay. That paying it is a cost to be avoided and not paying it saves you money. Let us examine this:

What do you gain/lose by paying sick pay?

There is undoubtedly a risk that some of the people you employ are not going to be as honest as some others. Some put the hours in they are required to do and go home. Some do that and also do more and also do personal development. And some put the time in but take every opportunity to shirk off their work, be lazy and take sick days even when they are not sick.

It’s an unfortunate fact that some people will game the system to their advantage. If they know they’ll get paid for being ‘ill’ while they are really at the local cinema watching the latest flick on the first day of opening then they think that is a risk worth taking and they “pull a sicky”

But on the flip what you gain is loyalty from those staff that don’t fall into that group. They value the fact that you will look after them when they are ill. These people rarely abuse the sick day provision.

What do you gain/lose by not paying sick pay?

So there are pros and cons to paying sick pay. All reasonably obvious. But what about the consequences of not paying sick pay?

Let’s start with the obvious consequence: By not paying sick pay you save money not only by not paying for illegitimate sick day claims, but you also save money when hard working staff are ill too. Ca-Ching! Well, not really as you’ve just demonstrated to the hard working staff that you don’t value them. Pretty stupid move.

Any not so obvious consequences? Yes. If you are not going to be paid when you are sick, how is that any different to unpaid leave? Apart from the chances of dismissal if caught being dishonest, it’s the same. By not paying sick pay you remove any incentive to be honest about why you were not at work (were you ill or you just couldn’t be bothered or you thought tarring and feathering the local tramp was a better idea?).

“I fancy doing some decorating today? I’ll pull a sicky. I won’t get paid, but I will get this annoying job done. Which is more important to me today? My life is, Decorating it is then.” And to hell with the business today. Instant holiday. No permission asked.

This one could leave some businesses in the lurch when they find out with no notice that someone isn’t coming in and the only reason is “I’m sick” (but what they don’t know is this person doesn’t care because they know they are not valued).

A lot of businesses employ part time staff. Many of them are businesses that start early in the morning and close late at night, resulting in a day longer than the typical 7.5 or 8 hours. The last thing these businesses need is to find out at 2pm as the second shift starts that a key team player isn’t coming in today. And by not paying sick pay they increase the likelihood of such a situation.

Working ill

The other unintended consequence of not paying sick pay is that people that are ill and should not attend work, may well choose to attend work because they need the money more than they need to stay in bed recovering. This is especially true of people on zero hours contracts and low pay contracts.

Coronavirus is in the news these days, and to stem this pandemic we really need ill people to do the right thing. But the right thing for society is in competition with the right thing for an individual on a low income who probably has negligible savings. They’re going to come to work with their illness as the short term gain for them (pay) outweighs the long term harm to others (some people may get ill). Humans discount future events, so that harm is in the distance and also not to them, as they’re already ill.

This latter scenario is seriously reduced as an outcome if people are paid enough to be able to take time off work when they are ill.

My friend – their choice

I’m not sure what they are going to do. What is clear though that having realised this unintended consequence and how their employer feels about them (despite customer comments to the contrary) their loyalty to the business has evaporated. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find some unpaid “sick leave” happens to allow my friend to do various things they need to do in their personal life at the expense of the business they would otherwise be working for.

I guess some people are going to read this and think WTF? But the point is this consequence only happens when you have good conscientious staff and then you don’t value them. If they were paid sick pay they wouldn’t feel unvalued or even think of pulling a sicky, let alone an unpaid sicky (which is in this situation the same, but more wilful).

The really sad thing? My friend likes to do a good job. Wants to work where a good job and good attitude is valued. But it seems that for the types of work they do such employers are rare beasts (not like the IT world where to keep staff you have to be a good employer).

I’m not really sure if my words have done justice to what I’m trying to explain here.

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