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'Deeply annoyed and frustrated': Contact tracers write to HSE over pay and conditions

“It’s insult[ing] to be paid less than the person sitting beside you because they have a speech and language therapist qualification.”

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

A UNION REPRESENTING some contact tracers has written to the HSE saying workers are ‘deeply annoyed and frustrated’ over pay and conditions, in a rare public dispute involving contact tracers. 

Contact tracers say they are unhappy about workers being paid at a lower rate of pay after two grades were merged. Separately, a whistleblower told The Journal that contact tracers were not told about a recent cut to overtime rates – something that the HSE disputes. 

Siptu, The Journal has learned, told HSE management that ‘unfair and unequal treatment’ of the contact tracers ‘will not be tolerated’. 

A union representative told a senior HSE programme manager that workers are becoming increasingly despondent at their treatment by the health service. In the letter, the union also takes issue with CPL Healthcare, which recruited and managed the appointment of the workers.

“Our members have consistently demonstrated their commitment in respect of their roles during this pandemic. However, the actions of HSE/CPL are undermining this commitment in unfair and unequal treatment, which will not be tolerated,” the letter states. A spokesperson for CPL said the company did not wish to comment. 

Almost 800 people are trained to work as contact tracers, according to the HPSC, working from six call centres around the country. They come from a variety of backgrounds, with some recruited for the role and other seconded from public sector bodies, the HSE and the Defence Forces. Their job is to phone people who have tested positive for Covid to identify their close contacts, in a bid to help stop the further spread of the virus.  

Contact tracers are unhappy over two issues: a decrease in the amount of overtime that contact tracers are paid, and the merging of two roles into one role at a lower rate of pay. 

In the strongly-worded letter on behalf of Galway contact tracers, Siptu said: “Our members are deeply annoyed and frustrated by HSE/CPL actions of merging the role and responsibilities of two grades to form a new role, without the same level of remuneration.”

The letter says that there were initially two levels of contact tracers, based on whether the employee had clinical experience or not, but notes that these lines have “blurred” and there is “no differential” between the two roles any more. It notes that workers in the lower grade are now carrying out the same roles and responsibilities as more senior workers. 

At the same time, a whistleblower who works in a contact tracing centre told The Journal that staff are deeply unhappy about the cut in their overtime pay. 

The pay reduction has come in the shape of a cut to the overtime rate reducing it from “time and a half” to “time and a quarter”.   

The contact tracer, who does not wish to be identified for fear of retribution for speaking out, noted that some colleagues are already being paid less than others who sit beside them in the call centre, where they regularly work 12-hour shifts. 

“We are on the bottom scale of pay for what we do and the long 12-hour shifts we do,” they said. 

They noted that workers with healthcare qualifications are already paid more than contact tracers who don’t have these qualifications. 

“It’s insult[ing] to be paid less than the person sitting beside you because they have a speech and language therapist qualification. We do exactly the same job to the letter and get paid less,” the person noted. 

All contact tracers “are not allowed to change from the script and are told never to give medical advice”, the person noted, so the qualifications appear moot. 

They said that workers were not told about the cut and only discovered it when they noticed their pay was lower than they had expected. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m still in the job for the same reason I started the role. I answered the call and knew I wanted to do my bit to lessen the effects Covid had in families,” the whistleblower said. 

Overtime

A spokesperson for the HSE said that contact tracers are paid in line with other agency workers. 

“Overtime rates and rules are nationally approved and vary depending on the category or grade of employee. CPL follow public pay guidelines and operate in line with agency workers directive i.e. pay the same overtime rates as HSE,” she said. 

The spokesperson said that an agreement to reduce overtime was circulated to HSE staff in July 2021. 

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“There are currently over 900 staff working as part of the HSE’s Contact Management Programme, established last year as a key part of the HSE’s response to COVID 19.

“The majority of contact tracing staff are employed on the basis of temporary contracts – there will always be a turnover of staff as people move to roles that may be more permanent in nature either in the public service or beyond,” the spokesperson added. 

Siptu was contacted for comment. 

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