Agreement to reform state laboratory service

Health sector employers and unions have agreed on the modernisation of the state laboratory service under the Public Service Agreement (the ‘Croke Park Agreement’). About 3,000 staff are now working longer, and have had cuts in their ‘out of hours’ payments since March 2011. The employer body, the Health Service Executive (HSE) estimates this could save about €5 million annually. The Public Service Agreement aims to achieve efficiencies and reform in all state sectors.

Background

The agreement covers medical laboratory scientists, biochemists, laboratory attendants and administrative staff. It was concluded at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) in January between the Health Service Executive (HSE) and the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) and the Irish Municipal Public and Civil Trade Union (IMPACT).

The agreement introduces an extended working day for staff in the laboratory services from 08.00 to 20.00 over a five-day week, with the potential introduction of a seven-day week in some locations, based on service need. Following the LRC talks three outstanding issues regarding pay and loss of earnings were referred to the Labour Court for a determination, in accordance with the wider Public Service Agreement. These were:

  • out-of-hours payment in respect of working midnight to 08.00 Monday to Friday;
  • rate of payment for being on standby off-site;
  • compensation for loss of earnings and phasing of compensation.

Loss of earnings

The Labour Court found that compensation for loss of earnings due to the new working and payment arrangements should be calculated ‘on the basis of 1.5 times the actual loss’. It is estimated that under the new payment system, laboratory scientists could lose up to 50% of their ‘out of hours’ income, which could amount to over €20,000 per year in some cases.

The level of compensation recommended by the Labour Court for loss of earnings due to changing rotas is a key decision and will most likely be applied to other grades in the health service where rotas are reformed under the Public Service Agreement. The court found that the level of the loss should be established ‘by comparing earnings in a full 12-month period in which the new arrangements have been in operation with a corresponding period in which the current system operated’. In terms of phasing, the court recommended that 50% of the compensation due should be paid 12 months after the new arrangement became operational with the remaining 50% being paid six months thereafter.

With regard to out of hours payment from midnight to 08.00, Monday to Friday, the court recommended that the new hourly rate should be €47.80. Prior to this, payment for work after midnight had been on an individual ‘fee per item’ basis of €23.25. This had proved to be costly in larger laboratories. The court also recommended that the standby rate payable to theatre nurses should be applied to medical scientists and biochemist laboratory staff. The rate for Monday to Friday will be €42.34, on Saturday it will be €54.38 and on Sunday and public holidays €73.51.

Commentary

The medical laboratory agreement is the first major agreement on reform and cost savings to be concluded under the ‘Public Service Agreement 2010–2014’ or, as it is also known, the Croke Park Agreement (324Kb PDF). The agreement was negotiated nationally in March 2010 and formally ratified by unions in June of the same year (IE1007039I).

The HSE estimates that savings from the reform of the laboratory service could be in the region of €5 million annually, mainly due to elimination of the fee per call payment system. Such tangible outcomes are needed to convince the government and public that the agreement is working. In a recent interview with the Irish Independent, Brendan Howlin, the new Minister for Public Sector Reform, said he felt the pace of reform had been too slow. He said he wanted to see ‘an immediate and comprehensive review of where we are in the Croke Park deal from the departments, what the deficiencies are, and why it has not progressed quicker’.

Roisin Farrelly, IRN Publishing

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