The HSE warned staff at Portiuncula Hospital this week that services will be curtailed and jobs put at risk if industrial action threatened by the Irish Nurses Organisation goes ahead.
The comment came in the lead up to the nursing union holding a lunchtime protest yesterday (Wednesday ) outside the 206 bed Ballinasloe facility in support of five senior nurse managers who have been on sick leave since last November. The event was addressed by the union’s general secretary Liam Doran.
The HSE insisted it has “done everything possible” to resolve the dispute at the hospital which employs 690 people and cautioned that any escalation in action would put patients and jobs at risk.
However Noreen Muldoon, the INO’s industrial liaison officer in the west, has accused the HSE of “pure and utter scaremongering” and urged it to use its energy to resolve the issue at the centre of the protest.
“The HSE needs to start concentrating on solving this problem. It should be sitting around a table trying to resolve the situation. We haven’t balloted for industrial action and the protest we organised was held at lunchtime so did not impact on patient care.”
The dispute at the centre of the controversy has been ongoing since September 2008, according to the INO.
“At that time the senior nurse managers raised a number of complaints regarding the health and safety of staff and patients at the hospital and some of their conditions of employment. Management at the hospital, instead of addressing those concerns, arranged for an assessment involving individual meetings with an outside consultant to be carried out without any terms of reference or agreement from the five senior nurse managers,” the spokesperson claimed.
“Each of the nurse managers sought written clarification on what was being assessed and terms of reference. None was forthcoming and, instead, they were instructed to attend. As a group they did attend an introductory meeting but were dissatisfied with the lack of clarity. They felt individual meetings with an outside party and without clear terms of reference were an attempt to penalise them for raising complaints. The first two scheduled for assessment refused to attend without terms of reference and they were suspended from work with full pay.”
The spokesperson outlined that agreement was reached for a mediated return to work for the five senior nurses who are currently on stress related sick leave. However, the union alleges that this mediated return was frustrated by an “insistence by management” that the nurses will face disciplinary action on their return to work.
“As a direct result they remain out of work. The INO want the original complaints dealt with in an open and transparent fashion and a return to work while that is happening without further threat. All of the nurse managers have long and distinguished careers with Portiuncula over the last 20 years.”
Noreen Muldoon said the five INO nurse manager members involved in the dispute have co-operated with all reasonable suggestions to enable their return to their normal working conditions.
“At this point, it is important that all parties participate in the Labour Relations Commission process to resolve the dispute and the INO is now calling on the HSE West to sit around the table to do so. Unless this occurs, this dispute cannot be resolved.”
Meanwhile in a statement the HSE outlined that in mid 2008 the hospital became aware of “working difficulties” within the senior nursing management team.
“Five assistant directors of nursing (whose pay scale ranges up to €67,000 before allowances and overtime ) went on sick leave following their refusal to co-operate with an investigation into management difficulties at the hospital,” it alleged. “The five who are on full sick pay have been referred to the HSE’s occupational health service. Mediation efforts failed and the INO is now threatening to renew industrial action.”
The spokesperson stated that a renewal of a ban by the INO on members acting in place of the nurse managers who had gone on sick leave would put patient safety at risk.
“The only safe course of action would be to curtail services, concentrating on day surgery first, placing temporary staff on protective notice and redeploying staff from areas where cutbacks had to be introduced.”
The statement outlined that when the HSE first became aware of the “working difficulties” within the nursing management team it engaged an external consultant with the agreement of the INO.
“The consultant’s [job was to] assess the situation but the five assistant directors of nursing who are now on sick leave refused to co-operate despite being assured that each one of them and the INO would have sight of the consultant’s report when it was completed,” it alleged.
“The HSE has done everything possible to resolve the dispute but its efforts had been frustrated by the refusal of the senior nurse managers to engage in a process sanctioned by their union and by the fact that they had subsequently walked off the pitch and stayed off it on full sick pay.
“This does nothing for the professional reputation of Irish nursing. The bottom line is that everyone is subject to authority and the sooner this is accepted the better.”