As coronavirus continues to loom over the country, the possibility the UK’s workforce might be pushed into lockdown is becoming increasingly likely.
In last week’s Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak assured that the country would be well prepared, and the workforce well remunerated, should this be the case. Within a fiscal stimulus worth a supposed £30 billion, Sunak announced that eligible firms would have their employees’ sick pay paid by the government for up to two weeks, while emergency cash loans of up to £3,000 would also be made available for SMEs which have been financially affected by the outbreak.
This is a considerable step toward mitigating effects of the pandemic on business, but it is not one that will help everyone. The UK’s freelance and self-employed workers have not been given nearly as much financial reassurance, and what has been promised hasn’t been said in the clearest of terms.
What sick pay rights do freelance and self-employed designers have?
Unfortunately, not many.
“Right now, freelancers and contractors really have little in the way of rights when it comes to sick pay,” says Julia Kermode, chief executive of the Freelancer and Contractor Services Association (FCSA). “What the government is faced with is the balancing act between public health and business as usual – they announced a number of reassurances last week, but most of these are only relevant to employees.”
In times of financial hardship and/or illness, freelance and self-employed workers are advised to apply for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and more recently, for Universal Credit. Workers can also, if they’re financially able, choose to insure themselves through income protection insurance before any such illness occurs.
Has the government promised anything that could help me if I get sick?
The prospect of getting sick at any time of the year and having to take time off work is, of course, a daunting one for people who aren’t entitled to statutory sick pay.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, however, this is amplified by the fact workers don’t even necessarily have to be sick to be forced out of work. Many governments and companies are choosing to pre-emptively shut down workplaces to stop the spread.
While not as considerable as its contingency plan for employees, the government did announce last week that it would be making ESA and Universal Credit easier to access for those unable to work because of social distancing or quarantine.
- “New Style” ESA, as it has been called, will be made payable to people who are self-employed who have a disability or health condition (including coronavirus) which affects how much they can work.
- ESA can now be claimed from day one of sickness, rather than the usual day eight.
- The usual requirement for people claiming ESA to attend a face-to-face meeting at a Jobcentre has been scrapped.
- But to be eligible for “New Style” ESA, you need to have both been self-employed and paid enough in National Insurance contributions over the last two to three years.
- Read more and apply for it here.
- The Minimum Income Floor (MIF) has been temporarily suspended for those who are “directly affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating according to government advice”.
- The usual requirement for people claiming Universal Credit to attend a face-to-face meeting at a Jobcentre has been scrapped. Rather, you could receive up to one month’s advance without attending a Jobcentre.
- You will not be required to produce a doctor’s note – referred to in the process as a Fit Note. The government’s Universal Credit website says an NHS 111 Online Fit Note service is “currently under development and will be available soon”.
- Read more and apply for it here.
For both types of welfare, which can in some cases be awarded at the same time, the government is urging self-employed and freelance workers to apply now, even if they have yet to actually be affected by the virus yet.
Do these measures go far enough?
Most worker advocacy groups and design industry bodies are not entirely satisfied with the measures announced so far.
“The government has made some changes to the welfare system to make it a bit easier for you to access, but we’re talking really low amounts of money here really,” says Alasdair Hutchison, policy development manager at the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE).
Hutchison says that with all the administrative requirements that come with accessing the welfare system, IPSE fears freelancers and the self-employed might “get lost” in the noise of the other contingency plans put in place.
“When it comes to freelancers and the self-employed, there is no line between personal finances and businesses finances,” he says. “What IPSE has been calling for since the start of this issue is really a mitigation fund to be made available specifically for the self-employed and freelance workers to cover the loss of their income because it’s not business expenses these people are worried about, it’s basic things like having enough money for food and rent.”
Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Designers and Cultural Workers branch of the United Voices of the World union (UVW-DCW) told Design Week that their organisation was in support of a government-issued Pandemic Basic Income, as well as a rent freeze across both housing and studio spaces.
With the current measures in place, the spokesperson said, the government risks a two-fold problem: “Self-employed workers are more likely to continue going into work, putting their own health and others at risk.
“If we are to become ill or unable to work due to closures, we receive little to no rights, pay, or protections.”
Outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson to urge more consideration for the self-employed and low-wage workers in light of the pandemic.
What have other countries done?
The UK is, of course, not the only country to have to deal with the business-related impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic.
- Ireland: All employees and self-employed workers who have lost employment due to coronavirus are entitled to a new Pandemic Unemployment Payment. The payment can currently be accessed for up to six weeks and is a flat rate of €203 per week.
- Norway: A crisis package has been agreed which includes provision for self-employed and freelance workers to receive temporary income protection equivalent to 80% of their average pay over the past three years, from day 17 after loss of income. Full pay has also been agreed for those who have been temporarily laid off.
- New Zealand: The self-employed can access a wage subsidy worth up to $585 a week for up to 12 weeks. Other provisions include financial support payments for those taking time off work to care for others with coronavirus.
Can I do anything to help myself?
There are a number of things that freelance and self-employed designers can be doing to, at least in part, mitigate some of the effects of coronavirus.
The Design Business Association (DBA) is holding a free coronavirus webinar on 20 March that is open to all designers. Head of services at the DBA Adam Fennelow tells Design Week: “We feel we should be doing something for the whole sector not just our members – we want to help people prepare for the worst, knowing that hopefully it won’t ever get that far.”
Meanwhile Kermode stresses that freelance and self-employed workers should be having full and frank discussions with their clients “sooner rather than later” regarding potential alternative working arrangements.
“Obviously freelancers can’t overrule what their client says – if the office is shut down, the office is shut down,” she says. “But starting a dialogue about how you might be able to carry on work at home, and thus still be able to bill for it, is important.”
Hutchison echoes this, saying that “engaging early” with clients could include suggestions of working from home, but also things like potentially breaking work into chunks “so that the freelancer can get at least some money now, rather than relying on a payment in six months’ time”.
What is important to also remember, Hutchison says, is the effects that go beyond financial.
“This is going to be a huge challenge for people’s mental health over the next few months,” he says. “I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep in touch with other freelancers and make sure you know you’re in this together.”
IPSE has a social media platform dedicated to its members called Freelance Corner, while the UVW-DCW is asking those affected by the coronavirus to share their experiences with them to show the breadth and extent of the issues at play.
Hutchison ends: “As we move through the situation, over time we’re going to have a better understanding of what can and needs to be done – but even now I’m sure that supporting each other will be a key part of this.”