Long Covid: UK employee rights if you need time off work - and how employers can help

Long Covid is one of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the pandemic - but what are your rights if you need extended time off work?

More than two years since the pandemic began, the virus is still circulating across the globe and many of those who have had coronavirus are now living with long Covid.

According to ONS statistics, as of 5 March 2022 an estimated 1.7 million people in the UK are experiencing self-reported long Covid - with symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of smell and muscle ache.

Long Covid is one of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the pandemic Long Covid is one of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the pandemic
Long Covid is one of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the pandemic

Long Covid was found to be most prevalent in people aged 35 to 49, females, people living in more deprived areas, those working in social care, teaching and education or healthcare and those with another activity-limiting health condition or disability.

Although some of those living with long Covid will already have had to navigate how they fare at work while living with the condition, what are the current long Covid employment rights?

We spoke to employment law experts to find out what your rights are - and how employers can help those living with long Covid.

What are my employment rights if I have long Covid?

Debra Gers, an employment lawyer at Blake Morgan, said employers are obliged to provide a written statement of certain "employment particulars", which include terms and conditions relating to incapacity for work due to sickness or injury, including any provision for sick pay.

However, employers may decide to pay only statutory sick pay (SSP), subject to the employee’s eligibility, or they may choose to pay contractual sick pay at a higher rate.

Ms Gers said: “An employee’s right to sick pay and time off work will be set out in their written statement or contract of employment and accordingly, the employer’s usual rules for sickness absence and sick pay will apply when someone is off work because of long Covid.”

This is reiterated by Tim Scott, Director of People at Fletchers Solicitors and Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, who added: “In the absence of any specific legislation to deal with long Covid, the minimum expectations of the law are that employers should comply with the usual provisions around sickness absence.

“From an employee perspective, as with any tricky sickness issue, a lot will depend on their employers’ policy and approach.”

The current rate of SSP is £99.35 a week regardless of the reason for the absence or incapacity.

However, to qualify for SSP the employee must earn an average of at least £123 per week and have been ill for at least four days in a row, including non-working days.

Although the amount of contractual sick pay is unlikely to vary because of the nature of the illness, it may be conditional on having a certain length of service and will generally be limited in duration and the rate at which it is paid.

How long can you take off?

In regards to how long you can take off due to long Covid, Ms Gers said “there is no prescribed period and the employer’s sickness absence policy will specify what steps will be taken at various stages.”

For example, this may include obtaining a medical report or being referred to an occupational health expert.

Those who are off on a longer term basis due to long Covid may be worried about losing their job, with some employers choosing to hire freelance, agency or temporary workers in the interim to cover for those off sick.

However, if this is the case, Gill McAteer, director of employment law at Citation, said employees should be informed about this and notified that their job is still there for them when they return, so it’s worth speaking to your employer if you’re worried about this.

Mr Scott added: “Clear communication is essential throughout the employment relationship and, in my experience, never more so than in matters of health.”