Theatre staff at Warrington Hospital in Cheshire are going on strike tomorrow and next week over a dispute with trust managers about out of hours work.
A group of 55 operating department practitioners (ODPs), scrub nurses and care assistants will walk out over plans to reform a historic agreement that has led to some staff earning around £60,000 a year – more than double a nurse’s wage in the same pay band.
“This is about safety and staff not being overworked”
The agreement means ODPs are paid additional money for working out of hours and for extra rest days, while nurses and care assistants are covered by the Agenda for Change pay framework 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said it had led to ODPs earning double the salary of their colleagues in the same pay band, while the theatres have been opened at night only 58 times in the last 12 months.
Staff said the trust asked them to sign up for the contractual over time more than four years ago, because it needed them to work extra hours due to short staffing.
The union Unite told Health Service Journal that it had negotiated with the trust to agree that extra scrub nurses and a care assistant would be provided at night, and that its members were prepared to accept less pay but the trust would have to “buy staff out” over a period of time.
“We must put our patients first and emergency cover must be provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week”
Unite said the staff feared being overworked by the trust who they believed could allocate them to work more nights and weekends to fill gaps, rather than employ agency workers.
The staff are seeking a contractual deal to limit their weekend working to one in four, which the trust has said it cannot agree to.
So far, they have rejected four separate offers from the trust including the most recent, which Unite recommended they should accept. An offer by the employer for mediation was also rejected.
The staff, who have already been working to rule, plan to strike between 1pm and 5pm on 18 August, followed by strikes between 8am and 12pm on 21 August and 1pm to 5pm on 25 August.
The trust said only a small number of patients would be affected and it was working to reschedule operations.
Only procedures carried out at Warrington Hospital are affected. The action does not include trust’s other sites, Halton General Hospital and the Cheshire and Merseyside Treatment Centre.
Derek Jones, acting regional industrial officer for Unite, told Health Service Journal: “This is an issue that has been going on for over four years.
“The trust want to change what is currently contracted overtime and that only came in because there was a shortage of staff and they couldn’t recruit and were using agency workers,” he said. “They struck a deal with the staff because they needed to maintain the service for patients.
“At the extreme end, you might have someone earning £20 or £25,000 extra, but remember the trust wanted this at the time because they were so short-staffed,” noted Mr Jones.
He said: “Money is not the issue for our staff; they are not resistant to change. But they fear that without a contractual safeguard on weekend working they will be shunted to work weekends and evenings, rather than the trust employing agency staff. This is about safety and staff not being overworked.”
Hospital theatre staff to strike over weekend working deal
Jan Ross, the trust’s acting chief operating officer, said its four offers had addressed 15 separate demands made by staff and agreement had been reached on all but one element, where staff were seeking a contractual agreement to work no more than one weekend in four.
“The trust cannot agree to this, as we must put our patients first and emergency cover must be provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Ms Ross.
“The trust’s final offer remains on the table for now, plus a commitment to review the rotas in six months following implementation, assessing frequency of weekend and night shifts,” she said.
“We re-affirm our commitment to filling any gaps in night and weekend rotas with bank or agency staff unless theatre staff elect to work this as overtime,” she added.