New contract agreed for non-consultant hospital doctors

A new contract for nearly 5,000 non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs) has been agreed by the main health sector employer, the Health Service Executive, and the Irish Medical Organisation. Two recommendations issued by the Labour Court in June and December 2009 form the basis of the new contract. The contract introduces new core working hours for NCHDs along with significant changes in work patterns, allowances and other terms and conditions.

Opposition to HSE proposals

In early 2009, the Health Service Executive (HSE) proposed specific changes to the employment contracts of non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHDs). The proposed changes included a mandatory one-hour unpaid meal break, the suspension of a training grant allowance and a living-out allowance – which dates back to a period when NCHDs were required to live on the hospital site – as well as changes to overtime payments. The HSE estimated that it would save over €30 million a year from the changes.

In response, the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) and six junior doctors initiated a High Court action against the HSE. The IMO accused the HSE of attempting a unilateral and ‘complete assault on the nationally agreed contractual terms and conditions of NCHD s’. A High Court settlement agreement was reached in April 2009, which provided for binding arbitration by the Labour Court (An Chúirt Oibreachais) on issues related to the NCHD contract.

Recommendation on core working hours

In June 2009, the Labour Court recommended the introduction of new core working hours for NCHDs, in line with the European Union Directive 2003/88/EC concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time (see Labour Court Recommendation 19559). Total weekly working hours for junior doctors had averaged at 61 hours and needed to be reduced to 48 hours under the EU working time directive.

The court recommended that the core length of the working day for NCHD s should run from 08.00 to 21.00 Monday to Friday and 08.00 to 19.00 at weekends. Furthermore, NCHD s should work for five to seven working days and the minimum length of shift per day should be six hours on Monday to Friday and five hours at weekends.

Second recommendation on other contractual issues

In a second recommendation on all other contractual issues, in December 2009, the Labour Court proposed that overtime rates for NCHDs should be increased to time plus one half and that the living-out allowance and paid lunch breaks should continue (see Labour Court Recommendation 19702). However, the court recommended that the qualification allowance should be discontinued.

Court rejects compensation claim

The court rejected an IMO claim for the payment of compensation for loss of earnings on foot of the implementation of the EU working time directive. In line with ‘its general approach to such claims’, the Labour Court rejected this claim and ruled that the matter:

‘should be addressed by the parties after the new contract has been in operation for a period of 12 months. Should it transpire that the introduction of the new contract results in a reduction in the amount of regular rostered overtime (other than in consequence of compliance with the Directive), the matter should be discussed between the parties at that stage. In those discussions, the parties should have full regard to the amount of loss, if any, and the financial circumstances of the HSE at that time.’

The Labour Court stated that ‘the solutions recommended should be incorporated in a formal contract document, together with matters already agreed, the drafting of which is a matter for the parties’. The new contract document should be reviewed in 2014.

Commentary

In January 2010, NCHDs – represented by the IMO – voted by a large majority in favour of accepting the new contract’s terms and conditions as per the Labour Court’s recommendations. Under the new working pattern, NCHDs are set to lose out on traditionally large overtime payments but will be able to work more manageable hours. In addition, for IMO members, the new contract protects training time and underlines the HSE’s responsibility to directly provide such training, in contrast to the old training grant system.

The new contract has been formally operating since February 2010 and an implementation committee has been set up to oversee the roll-out and implementation of the new terms and conditions. The introduction of a new NCHD contract had been under negotiation between the HSE and IMO since 2002.

Roisín Farrelly, IRN Publishing

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