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On-call negotiations — get involved now

By Kate Towers, BPharm

Pharmacists need to get to grips with the newly published principles for
on-call payments and become involved in negotiating local arrangements


The issue of NHS on-call arrangements has been on the table for years; it was one of the few aspects of Agenda for Change that had remained unresolved. Indeed, negotiations to reach a harmonised national agreement stalled in 2008. But crunch time is fast approaching — NHS employers have been given a deadline of 1 April 2011 to have new agreements in place.

On-call arrangements are now to be determined locally, based on a set of agreed national principles published by the NHS Staff Council in November. To ensure that they are well represented, pharmacists need to understand what is going on and get involved in local negotiations.

What is happening now?

According to Dave Thornton, chairman of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists terms and conditions committee, at the moment a large proportion of pharmacists doing on-call duties is being paid based on the Whitley grading system; this is £2,859 per year irrespective of how often they are on-call or how many calls they receive.

On top of this, pharmacists are usually remunerated if they have to go in to the hospital as part of their on-call duties (travelling time may also be paid) and if there is a commitment to be on-call at weekends or on bank holidays.

What the principles propose

Mr Thornton explains that the new principles will mean that, for all staff performing on-call duties in a local area, there will be one on-call agreement.

All staff who perform on-call duties will be entitled to an “availability payment” and a “work-done payment”. Both will be negotiated locally.

Importantly, says Mr Thornton, organisations cannot implement any arrangements locally (including the current AfC interim conditions) without proper negotiation with staff.

How to get involved

Dave Thornton, chairman of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists terms and conditions committee, offers the following tips to help pharmacists get involved with local negotiations:

Join the GHP and nominate a staff representative (this person should then register with Unite as a workplace Agenda for Change representative for pharmacists)

Find out what other groups are affected by the changes, how they are currently remunerated for on-call and what their view or position is regarding the new terms and conditions

Determine the starting position and bottom line for pharmacists for levels of pay

Feed all of the above into the local staff discussions and make yourself known to the staff leads in your organisation (by getting involved you can influence the direction of travel)

Challenge any human resources practices that you believe do not abide by the national principles (eg, unilateral imposition of the AfC interim arrangements without any local negotiation)

The availability payment

The principles set out three options for how the availability payment can be paid, namely:

  • Flat rate for all staff
  • Flat rate by AfC band
  • Percentage of salary

The availability payment will also have to take into account the regularity of on-call duties, with staff who are more frequently on-call being paid more. To ensure availability payments are consistent, the frequency must be described according to defined periods, which will be determined locally.

For example, the AfC interim arrangements divide each week into nine on-call sessions (each weeknight being one session, with Saturday and Sunday each counting as two sessions).    

So what does Mr Thornton think are the pros and cons for each option? “My view is that a sessional payment for each band is probably the best and fairest way of doing this, for example £100–£150 per session, bearing in mind that Saturday and Sunday count as two sessions each. This would apply to all staff on the same band.

“This would also allow local partnerships to agree different sessional payments for different bands of staff,” he points out.  

“It also means that if extra sessions have to be covered due to sickness or vacancies, the individual doing the extra sessions will get extra payments. This is not currently the case since you get the same payment irrespective of the number of times you are on call.”

He believes that the option based on a percentage of a pharmacist’s salary is unfair because it would allow for widely different payments for staff who fulfil the same level of commitment.

He gives the example of a band 6 pharmacist: “If, for instance, the payment level were to be 2% of salary — as in the interim arrangement for staff doing a one-in-10 to one-in-12 rota — the level of commitment pay would go from £2,859 per year to around £500 per year, or around a 9% cut in salary. This is hardly likely to help the current recruitment and retention problems that are still widespread.”

It should also be noted that, according to the principles, if a flat rate scheme is decided then arrangements for upping the payment in line with any pay increases will also have to be negotiated.

The work-done payment

According to the new principles, payment for work done (including work done at home) should be made at an appropriate hourly rate. Again, this is to be negotiated locally, but it should be with reference to the rates in the AfC handbook.

“If work done is on top of the standard 37.5-hour week, the logical level of pay would be the same as overtime rates in the AfC handbook,” says Mr Thornton.

A crucial change under the new principles is that undertaking work over the phone will be paid as work done. Mr Thornton suggests that this is likely to be based on the actual time spent on the phone answering queries. Pharmacists will have to claim this work as overtime, which may prove onerous for pharmacists and management. Additionally the system will, to a large extent, be based on trust.

Other features of the work-done payment include:

  • Time off in lieu — staff should have the option to take time off in lieu rather than be paid for work done (this must be a genuine choice on the part of the employee)
  • Travel time — for those staff who are available at home to go to a workplace when called, travel time should be paid as for work done
  • Compensatory rest — rest for work done will be in accordance with AfC

How is “local” defined?

Mr Thornton explains that there is no set definition for what is meant by “local” in the on-call principles; arrangements could be negotiated at the level of an individual hospital, trust-wide or across a larger area.

Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are looking at country-wide agreements, but that will not occur in England.

Will you be better off?

According to Mr Thornton, unless pharmacists are doing very frequent on-call shifts (eg, one in three sessions), they will probably not end up with more money in their pockets.

He adds that it is unlikely there will be any new money to fund on-call duties and that trust managers are likely to see the local arrangements as an opportunity to cut costs.

“Whatever the local agreement is at the end of the discussions, it will likely have to fit inside the current pay envelope. When different groups of staff are sitting down and thinking about their starting position for negotiations, this should be borne in mind.”

However, Mr Thornton also urges staff to determine the minimum payments they are willing to accept —  this will need to be part of the staff position after the negotiations start.

He points out that, although the GHP is providing tools for local use and co-ordinating local meetings to discuss the way forward, it cannot solve the issues locally; negotiation can only be done by the staff in each locality.

“If pharmacists do not engage with the process locally,” he warns, “the outcome may not be favourable to them.”

Citation: Clinical Pharmacist URI: 11049274

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