Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Questions (53, 111)

Gino Kenny

Question:

53. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Health his views on the perceived negative impact that low pay and poor conditions have on the recruitment and retention of staff in the healthcare system; the steps he will take to resolve the pay claims of the 10,000 healthcare workers who have shown good faith by deferring two days of strike action; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27802/19]

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Lisa Chambers

Question:

111. Deputy Lisa Chambers asked the Minister for Health if his attention has been drawn to the strike action due to take place by 10,000 hospital support staff; and his plans to resolve the matter in order to avoid further strike action. [25570/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Health)

I wish to ask about the recruitment and retention of staff in the healthcare system, particularly in light of last week's strike by 10,000 healthcare staff. Will the Minister comment on this issue?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 53 and 111 together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter. I will answer the questions in the context of the Labour Court tomorrow starting three days of intensive hearings and engagements on this dispute regarding some of the staff in our healthcare service represented by SIPTU.

It is important to say that staff in the public service are already in receipt of a series of pay increases and pay restoration measures under the public service stability agreement, which will see public servants receiving an average 7% increase in their salaries over the lifetime of the agreement. By the end of 2020, there is a commitment to restore 90% of the pay reductions experienced under the FEMPI legislation introduced after the economy was crashed by previous Governments. Staff also benefit from a public sector pension, something that is highly valuable to the employees, as well as other benefits, such as flexible working, sick leave and maternity leave, that workers may not have in other areas of the economy.

In terms of recruitment and retention of health service grades, the Public Service Pay Commission is continuing its work on assessing roles in the public service that have been identified as experiencing recruitment and retention issues. The commission has already made recommendations in respect of nurses, consultants and non-consultant hospital doctors, NCHDs, and the Government has accepted these findings.

Regarding the industrial action that took place on 26 June by SIPTU support staff grades, I was pleased that talks between the parties resumed at the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, last Thursday. It is fair to say that some progress was made, but it was not possible to reach agreement on all issues. As a result, the matter has been referred to the Labour Court for an early hearing, which will commence tomorrow.

While I acknowledge that SIPTU acted in good faith by deferring two days of its planned industrial action, for which I thank it, we cannot forget that one day of action went ahead involving 10,000 staff across 38 healthcare facilities. In advance of the action, contingency plans were put in place to provide emergency cover. I thank those involved in that. Given the broad range of roles involved in the dispute and the fact that work practices can vary between sites, the majority of contingency planning had to be negotiated locally, which made the situation even more complex. Maintaining essential daily care for our patients in areas such as nutrition, hydration, patient transfers, cleaning and infection control posed an immense challenge. Despite the best efforts made around the contingency plans and trying to provide as complete a service as possible, however, it was the patients and their families who were disrupted most as a result of the industrial action.

I remind the Deputies that, prior to the dispute, constructive and positive engagement by the parties involved took place at the WRC. I am disappointed that the issue did not go to the Labour Court before the industrial action went ahead, but it will be before the court tomorrow and I hope for a resolution. I call on both parties to redouble their efforts.

I am a former hospital worker, and the Minister will appreciate it when I say that hospital workers are the glue that holds hospitals together.

Clerical staff, porters, care assistants, chefs and other hospital workers of that magnitude keep hospitals afloat. The crux of the dispute relates to moneys owed to these 10,000 workers. The matter goes back to 2015 and the job evaluation scheme introduced under the Lansdowne Road agreement. The HSE and the Department of Health agreed that the pay increases recommended under the job evaluation scheme should be paid to the workers. The workers are asking for moneys owed to them in respect of changed job responsibilities and descriptions over that period. They are asking for the money to be paid to them now, rather than at a later date.

I agree with the Deputy on the integral part support staff grades play in our health service. He knows of it from his personal experience and we all know of it from our use of the health service. Whether it is moving patients from an emergency department to a ward, helping to discharge a patient, keeping our hospital clean or providing a good hot meal, these staff are integral members of our health service. There is much discussion of doctors and nurses, but I agree with the Deputy that the staff to whom he refers are the gel that keeps our health services together.

There has been significant movement by the management. I do not wish to say anything provocative or that will in any way impede the work of the Labour Court tomorrow - the Oireachtas has a protocol in this respect - but there has been movement by management. In fact, much of the claim has been accepted. The debate now relates to implementation and the timeline for implementation such that it is affordable and makes progress. As the Deputy will appreciate, it is fair to say that there are differing views in that regard. He is correct that there was a job evaluation scheme. It was advised that the question of implementing the outcome of the exercise would be considered by the parties at its conclusion. The dispute centres on the timeline for implementation of the outcome of the first two phases. Phase 3 involved home help and homecare workers and phase 4 is made up of other support staff grades. Phase 3 is complete, but has not yet been officially reported on. Phase 4 is under way. I hope and believe that if all sides to the dispute redouble their efforts and use the mechanism of the Labour Court, we can try to find a resolution over the next three days.

There is significant frustration among healthcare staff, many of whom I know. They are very frustrated with the process. They held off and took the pain over the years of austerity. They want what is owed to them. The HSE and the Department of Health stated that they agree with the outcome of the job evaluation scheme. The money is owed to the workers. One way or another, the matter will be resolved. It must be resolved by giving the workers the money owed to them because if it is not, strike action will continue. If the Department of Health and the HSE stated that under the job evaluation scheme the workers are entitled to the money, why is the money not being given to them?

I agree that significant pain and hardship was inflicted on many people in this country as a result of the economic crash. We have been working to try to rebuild the country from that point. We increased the minimum wage several times, particularly after it was cut by €1. We prioritised low-paid workers in the public service stability agreements and nearly all the reductions under FEMPI will have been returned to workers by the end of next year. Wages are rising and, from a metric point of view, inequality is beginning to reduce. Those are not my figures; rather, they were published independently.

The Deputy is correct that a job evaluation scheme was carried out and that the workers are doing complex and changed jobs. They are reforming their practices and working differently. I recently launched a new nutrition and hydration policy which involves our chefs going above and beyond their duty in terms of the types of meals they provide to meet the individual needs of patients. That is not the issue in the dispute. Rather, it is around the timeline, implementation and the phasing of payments. It is not beyond us to resolve this matter. We were making significant progress before the strike went ahead. The Labour Court is the appropriate forum to resolve the dispute.