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More Than a Million Low-Paid Workers Forced to Regularly Skip Meals During Pandemic

New research shows the impact of low pay during the pandemic, with two-thirds of workers earning below the real Living Wage experiencing a fall in earnings since the pandemic began 

Over a quarter of low-paid workers (amounting to over one million people[1]) have had to regularly skip meals since the start of the pandemic as a result of financial constraints, with over a third saying low pay had negatively affected relationships with close family and friends, and nearly half seeing a negative effect on their levels of anxiety, according to new research from the Living Wage Foundation.  

The polling of over 2,000 employees in the UK working full-time but earning less than the real Living Wage (£9.50 outside of London and £10.85 within London) lays bare the effects of low pay on financial security, family life, and mental and physical health over the past year.  

Polling found that among full-time workers earning below the real Living Wage: 

  • Over two-thirds (67%) had seen their pay fall over the past year as a result of the pandemic 
  • 29% had fallen behind with household bills in the past year 
  • 27% said they had skipped meals regularly for financial reasons in the past year  
  • A fifth (20%) said they had been unable to heat their home for financial reasons   
  • A fifth (20%) said they had fallen behind with their rent or mortgage   

The polling of full-time, below-Living-Wage workers also found damaging effects on health and family life:  

  • Nearly half (46%) said that the pay they received for their work negatively affects their levels of anxiety 
  • Over a third (34%) said that the pay they received for their work negatively affects their relationships with close friends and family  
  • 31% of parents said that the pay they received for their work negatively affects their relationships with their children. 

Laura Gardiner, Director of the Living Wage Foundation, said: 

“We've long known that low pay leads to financial insecurity, but our analysis shows the much broader and more pernicious effects of low wages on workers and their families. The fact that many low earners – including essential workers who've kept the economy going through the pandemic – are forced to skip meals or forego heating their homes is unacceptable. 

As the vaccine is rolled out and we inch back to some sense of normality, it’s clear business as usual isn’t an option. To recover and rebuild, and to truly level up living standards throughout the UK, we will need to see a greater focus on lifting people onto a real Living Wage that covers the cost of living. That means more businesses joining the 7,000 Living Wage Employers –  over 1,200 of whom have signed up since the start of the pandemic – committed to paying a Living Wage.” 

Julie[2], a Supermarket Checkout Assistant, said: 

“Working at the supermarket in the pandemic has had a huge impact on my mental health, it’s increased all our responsibilities due to the Covid measures and definitely put more stress and anxiety on me. It resulted in multiple incidents where I needed time off work.  Earning a real Living Wage would mean I don’t have to live my life pay-check to pay-check. It would also mean I could afford to move out of my parents' house and increase my motivation to do the job.” 

Polling also revealed the potential benefits of the real Living Wage to both workers and the businesses they work for. When asked what they thought would happen if they were to move from the minimum wage to the Living Wage:  

  • 63% said it would improve their family life  
  • 65% said it would improve their mental health 
  • 70% said they would be likely to stay with their employer for longer  
  • 68% said they would be more likely to speak positively about their employer to others. 

Life on Low Pay in the Pandemic Report

Building on our previous 'Life on Low Pay' report, this report explores the experiences of full-time, below-Living-Wage employees based on polling conducted by Survation in December 2020, We explore the impacts of the pandemic on pay, and the broader implications of being in low-paid work for health, finances and family life.

Read more

Notes to Editors: 

Living Wage Foundation Media Contacts for interviews and case studies: John Hood – / 07507 173649 or Tom Blin – / 07706 217589 

Polling was conducted by Survation of 2,128 employees in the UK who were working full time but earning less than the real Living Wage from 3-14 December, 2020.  

[1] Analysis of Office for National Statistics data shows that 5.5 million employees earn less than the real Living Wage in the UK, 2.7 million of whom work full time. Our polling was of full-time, below-Living-Wage workers only, but given the well-documented association between part-time work and poverty/insecurity, it is reasonable to assume a roughly similar prevalence of regularly skipping meals among those earning less than the Living Wage but working part time. That would imply that well over one million below-Living-Wage workers skipped meals regularly in 2020.  

[2] Name anonymised 

What is the real Living Wage?   

The real Living Wage is an hourly rate of pay set independently and updated annually (not the UK government’s National Living Wage). It is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK, and employers choose to pay the Living Wage on a voluntary basis. According to the Living Wage Foundation, since 2011 the campaign has impacted over 250,000 employees and delivered over £1.3bn extra to some of the lowest paid workers in the UK.  

About the Living Wage Foundation  

The Living Wage Foundation is the institution at the heart of the independent movement of businesses, organisations and people who believe that a hard day’s work should mean a fair day’s pay. We recognise and celebrate the leadership shown by the nearly 7,000 Living Wage Employers across the UK who voluntarily commit to ensure their staff earn a real Living Wage that meets the cost of living. We are an initiative of Citizens UK.   

Only the real Living Wage is calculated according to the cost of living in the UK and in London. Employers choose to pay this wage on a voluntary basis. The real Living Wage applies to all workers over 18 – in recognition that young people face the same living costs as everyone else. It enjoys cross party support.   

The UK Living Wage for outside of London from Monday 9th November is £9.50 per hour. The London Living Wage is £10.85 per hour. These figures are calculated annually by the Resolution Foundation and overseen by the Living Wage Commission, based on the best available evidence on living standards in the UK and in London. 

9th February 2021
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