Project Description

Key features of measures taken in EU countries

Lockdowns and other restrictive measures introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic recession have had a strong impact on labour markets worldwide.

As far as the European Union (EU) is concerned, the accelerated fall in total employment was the ‘sharpest decline ever observed over two successive quarters since 1995’ (European Commission 2020a: 20). Unemployment, however, decreased moderately over 2020, although to differing extents in individual Member States and at different paces during the various lockdown phases (ibid.: 7), mainly thanks to the social protection schemes which were put in place. This exceptional and unpredictable context puts the pivotal role of social protection squarely in the spotlight, reminding policymakers and citizens of the essential role of strong social protection to cushion against potential disastrous social impacts and job destruction.

As Covid-19 is, first and foremost, a health crisis, among the most important social protection measures taken by the Member States during 2020 and 2021 were those relative to paid sick leave schemes. The aim of this article is to shortly describe the main features of  these measures.

Existing schemes protecting workers against the risk of sickness by ensuring them financial support vary significantly between Member States, and benefits differ alongside some key dimensions such as eligibility conditions, duration and replacement rate. A general distinction can be drawn between ‘sick pay’ and ‘sickness benefits’ (Spasova et al., 2016). Sick pay refers to ‘[the] continued, time limited, payment of (part of) the worker’s salary by the employer during a period of sickness’ (ibid.: 4). State-mandated sick pay schemes are targeted at employees and are available in all the Member States except for Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Sickness benefits are ‘provided by the social protection system and [are] paid as a fixed rate of previous earnings, or a flat-rate amount’ (Spasova et al., 2016.:4). Sickness benefit schemes – available in all EU Member States – cover employees (usually, after the expiry of the sick pay period, when this exists) and the self-employed.

The vast majority of EU countries have enacted measures aiming at adapting their paid sick leave benefits to the new circumstances of the pandemic.

Among the most widespread measures implemented there is, first, the broadening of the circumstances covered by sick pay or sickness benefits besides cases of actual illness. In this respect, no less than 25 Member States have enacted measures granting paid sick leaves to workers under mandatory quarantine for circumstances related to Covid-19 (for instance, because they had contacts with an infected person or after coming back from travels in at risk areas) or to workers (mostly employees) belonging to groups particularly at risk of developing serious forms of illness if infected by the new coronavirus. Second, a number of countries have reduced or abolished waiting periods, i.e. the number of days during which the worker has no access to any compensation in case of sickness. While, in most of these countries, waiting periods have been waived only for circumstances related to Covid-19 (e.g., infection or mandatory quarantine), in a few countries this also applies to waiting periods for sick leave for any kind of illness. Third, in no less than ten countries the level of paid sick leaves for circumstances related to Covid-19 is higher than the level of ordinary sick pay or sickness benefits, while in only two countries (Belgium and Sweden) higher benefits than in the pre-pandemic period have been paid also for of sick leaves not related to Covid-19. Fourth, in more than half of the EU countries, national governments and social security institutions have stepped-in to reduce employers’ responsibilities in the payment of sick leaves related to Covid-19. Fifth, in no less than twelve EU countries Covid-19 infections contracted at the workplace or during the performance of work-related activities have been recognised as – or assimilated to – an occupational disease or accident at work, a circumstance having important implications for the level of the benefits granted to workers (usually higher than ordinary sickness benefits) and the possibility to have immediate access to financial support, without any waiting period.

This said, in some of these countries only workers of some specific sectors such as healthcare staff or workers in essential services have access to occupational disease/accident at work benefits in case of Covid-19 and, sometimes, these measures are only targeted to employees.

Our researches conclude that, in most EU countries, measures enacted during the pandemic have strengthened the protection offered to workers in case of sickness but that, for a number of reasons, the impact of these changes on the adequacy and inclusiveness of national paid sick leaves systems should not be overestimated. First, all the measures we have identified are temporary: they are meant to stay in force only for the duration of the state of emergency due to the pandemic. Second, most of these measures only concern circumstances related to Covid-19: only a few changes have concerned sick pay and sickness benefits paid for reasons other than Covid-19. Third, these measures seldom address existing gaps in terms of protection of specific categories of workers. In many countries, indeed, already before the pandemic some workers were de facto excluded from access to paid sick leave benefits or were only inadequately protected (Spasova et al. 2017). This is the case of non-standard employees (for instance, part-time workers, seasonal workers, platform workers) and of  some categories of self-employed, that can be excluded by an effective coverage because  they may be unable to meet eligibility criteria for access to paid sick leave benefits such as minimum employment periods or minimum contributions paid. These criteria have been relaxed during the pandemic in no more than five countries and only for benefits concerning Covid-19.

For the rest, no specific measures to ensure a better protection of those categories of workers have been implemented so far.

References:

Baptista, I., Marlier, E., Spasova, S., Peña-Casas, R., Fronteddu, B., Ghailani, D., Sabato, S. and Regazzoni, P. (2021/ forthcoming), “Social protection and inclusion policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis. An analysis of policies in 35 countries”, European Social Policy Network (ESPN), Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Spasova S., Bouget D. and Vanhercke B. (2016) Sick pay and sickness benefit schemes in the European Union, Background report for the Social Protection Committee’s In-Depth Review on sickness benefits, Brussels, European Social Protection Network (ESPN), European Commission.

Spasova, S., Ghailani, D., Sabato, S., Coster, S., Fronteddu, B. and Vanhercke, B. (2021), Non – standard workers and the self-employed in the EU: social protection during the Covid-19 pandemic, Brussels, European Trade Union Institute, 51 p.

Spasova,S., Sabato, S., Ghailani, D., Fronteddu B. et Vanhercke, B. (2021/forthcoming), Protection sociale pendant la pandémie : les mesures prises pour les travailleurs atypiques, Les Cahiers de la FEC, FEC.

Slavina Spasova & Sebastiano Sabato

Slavina Spasova, PhD in Political Sciences, is a senior researcher at the European Social Observatory (OSE). Her research focuses on social protection and employment related subjects such as non-standard workers and self-employed, reforms of pensions and long-term care. Contact: spasova@ose.be

Sebastiano Sabato, PhD in Political Sciences, is a senior researcher at the European Social Observatory (OSE). His research interests include EU socio-economic governance, comparative social policy and policies related to the socio-ecological transition. Contact: sabato@ose.be

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