Image copyright Thinkstock Image caption There are 484 care homes in Northern Ireland, with a total of 16,000 beds

Trade union Unison has said it is a "scandal" that staff at private care homes who test positive for Covid-19 are not offered enhanced sick pay.

Good Morning Ulster has discovered that staff at some private care homes are only offered statutory sick pay if they take ill.

Some of these staff have contracted the virus from residents in the homes.

When it comes to statutory sick pay for staff, care home owners are fully operating within the law.

Some employers however agree to pay employees their salary for a specified period of time when they are on sick leave.

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary for Unison, said it was a widespread issue across the private care home sector that staff were not being supported if they contracted Covid-19 while at work.

Unison wrote to Northern Ireland's care home providers on 6 March 2020 asking that anyone who had to shield or had tested positive would be offered full sick pay.

She told the BBC that as of yet "very few" of the care home operators had responded.

Image copyright SHIRLEY ANN QUINN Image caption Care worker Shirley Ann Quinn tested positive for Covid-19

Shirley Ann Quinn, a health assistant at a private care home, has been working on the frontline caring for elderly residents who have contracted coronavirus and has supported some of them in their final moments.

Ms Quinn tested positive for Covid-19 and took a week off work on statutory sick pay.

"Because I work for the private sector, anyone who is off sick for any reason only gets statutory sick pay," she said.

  • Listen to Shirley Ann Quinn's interview on BBC Sounds

After tax she was was paid £82 so she was down about £300 for the week.

'All you get'

"It's very demoralising, it actually makes me wonder why I'm in the line of work that I'm in," she said.

"I love my job, I love going in to see the residents and we have an amazing time with them and they make us laugh and we make them laugh.

"But then you're working 12-hour shifts, maybe longer, you're dealing with a lot of hardship and then that's all you get if you test positive."

Ms Quinn wants to see change in the private sector and says it "has been given a back seat".

"We are doing the same job as many front-line workers, but yet we aren't getting the same recognition," she said.

Unison said the issue was a "scandal" and workers were "being exploited".

"We have been raising this since before the lockdown," said Ms McKeown.

Image caption Patricia McKeown from Unison said if a nurse catches Covid-19 in a care home they will be given full sick pay

"Most of the homes do not engage with unions and do not have negotiated sick pay.

"Statutory sick pay seems to be the order of the day despite the fact staff are catching this virus while supporting elderly residents."

In recent weeks the Department of Health has said some of its nurses would be sent in to care homes to support staff to work there.

Ms McKeown said if a nurse catches Covid-19 in a care home they would be given full sick pay, but the care worker they are working alongside would not.

There are 484 care homes in Northern Ireland, with a total of 16,000 beds.

Figures released last week showed 40% of Covid-19 related deaths in NI have occurred in care homes.

The weekly breakdown from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) details all deaths with Covid-19 recorded on a death certificate.

Out of the 393 deaths Nisra recorded by 24 April, 158 - 40.1% - occurred in care homes.

'Financial pressures'

Pauline Shepherd, chief executive of Independent Health and Care Providers, said all independent care home providers are required to meet the government guidelines and employment legislation in terms of managing self-isolation and statutory payments.

"Like all businesses continuing to operate under the pressure of this pandemic, care homes are facing considerable financial pressures," she said.

She said they were currently waiting to hear from the Department of Health about funding pressures.

"If funding is provided to enhance employee payments due to Covid-19 then this will be reflected appropriately in terms and conditions of employment."

The Department of Health said it had been concerned about the terms on which many social care workers in the independent sector were employed for some time.

"That is why we want to work with employers to improve those terms with regard to pay, terms and conditions and career structure," a spokesperson said.

"In the immediate term, we are continuing to consider what additional financial measures and support may be necessary for the care home sector and those who work in it."