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HSE recruitment freeze: 'Do I need to go back to Australia where I am appreciated and snapped up?'

Irate healthcare workers have been contacting Minister Simon Harris all year about their fears over the ongoing recruitment embargo.

Image: Shutterstock/beerkoff

IT’S ALMOST NINE months since a suspension was put in place on recruitment for certain positions within the HSE, with some people who’d accepted positions as far back as a year ago still waiting to take up their new jobs.

At the same time, the government and HSE has refused to acknowledge that this amounts to a recruitment freeze or an embargo.

Over the past few months, TheJournal.ie has spoken to healthcare workers in a variety of areas – nursing, speech and language therapy, physiotherapy, midwifery, administration – who’ve been affected to varying degrees by this. 

People made arrangements to move to different parts of the country. They turned down other jobs on the assumption they’d be able to soon take on the job they’d accepted and initiated processes such as garda vetting.  They had mortgages and rent to pay. 

And, in documents released to TheJournal.ie via Freedom of Information, those who wrote to Health Minister Simon Harris to query why they were being left in this limbo were told that the position was that there is no national recruitment embargo in the HSE and that the priority for the HSE must be to live within the resources available to them. 

Recruitment freeze

At the beginning of April, Labour’s health spokesperson Alan Kelly highlighted the freeze put in place by the HSE, sharing a letter that had been issued a week before to senior HSE figures.

In that letter, dated 29 March, HSE chief operations officer Liam Woods wrote to senior colleagues to inform them of the recruitment freeze.

He said that recruitment had been suspended for the next three months due to the “financial pressures in the system” from recruitment last year, and the “need to live within the resources provided to the HSE”.

Woods said that it was hoped that this “additional control” will be in effect “for as short a period as necessary”. Those controls were initially put in place until 30 June.

TheJournal.ie reported in July that that deadline came and went, with the freeze persisting and affecting hundreds across the health service.

‘We have not been told’

In documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, healthcare workers laid bare their situations when asking the minister for advice or help with where they’d found themselves.

“As you can imagine, I was very disappointed to learn about the move to a recruitment ban which came into effect on 9 April 2019,” one said. “I am one of approximately 1,100 potential HSE employees whose posts are now paused.

I understand the need for fiscal prudence but this measure has a direct effect on my life and the potential mental health care of people in the CH07 community [covering Kildare/West Wicklow, Dublin West, Dublin South City and Dublin South West]

A speech and language therapist in May wrote to the minister: “We have not been told officially when redeployment will commence but I was told unofficially recently that the embargo will at least continue until September.

“I realise the HSE says there is no embargo but there absolutely is… This situation is completely unfair for my patients, their families and I and creates unnecessary stress for all of us. There are so many speech and language therapy vacancies and waiting lists are at an all time high.”

Another worker said they’d been offered a job in writing from the HSE and accepted it before handing in notice to another place of work. 

After being told their contract was “just about to be sent” and was “sitting on the printer”, they found out about the freeze.

“I learned about the freeze (from the news, not from the HSE) and when I phoned the office to inquire I was told that they had no intention of informing candidates who had already been offered jobs about the hiring freeze, and had no information on when the freeze would end, or whether the job offer was still valid,” they said.

A dentist who had gone through an extensive rigmarole of documentation and paperwork to be in a position to start their new job was advised as late as 15 April that their position was progressing. They were told on 23 April that the position was put on hold.

They said: “It was extremely distressing and shocking to receive this email without warning… To be offered a job and then dramatically and unexpectedly take it back is just not good enough and fundamentally wrong.”

In a response typical of those issued prior to June, the minister’s private secretary said that the HSE had decided to introduce “interim control measures” for a “consolidation period of three months to the end of June”. 

The secretary added that on receipt and acceptance of “balance plans” from hospital groups, the HSE had indicated that the controls can be reviewed and removed “where appropriate”. 

In any event, these controls were not lifted at the original set date of 30 June. And the problems faced by healthcare workers didn’t stop.

Ongoing problem

One man wrote that he and his wife worked as nurses in the west of the country. However, his wife was unable to work after the recruitment ban was announced.

“We have recently bought a house and are struggling to pay the mortgage,” he said to Harris in July. “We had not envisioned a reduction in income like this. The director of nursing here also informed us that this hospital was exempt from the recruiting embargo. She was incorrect.”

Then, in a week into August, Harris’ office received this email: “Hi, thanks for your email to state that you received my email, on behalf of Simon Harris. In the meantime, I contacted Louise O’Reilly from Sinn Féin, who contacted the HSE for me.

They then got back to me with an email from the HSE. It ended in a positive outcome for our family. We are extremely happy that my wife will be able to commence her nursing position and now can remove her name from the unemployment register.
It was a shame that Simon’s office could only acknowledge my difficult situation, even though it was his office that caused this embargo. Thanks for sending me elsewhere.

A midwife wrote to the minister in late August: “Do I need to go back to Australia where I am appreciated and effectively snapped up at this role [of staff midwife]?”

A speech and language therapist approaching the end of a year-long career break detailed their experience of being in limbo that same month: “I am aware that a condition of return from a HSE career break is re-employment within a year. My concern arises from the fact that my post was approved at group level, that I was given a start date, moved home from Australia and rented a house on this basis.”

The HR at local level told the woman that they were “unable to commit to a timeline for reinstatement” and she told Harris she now found herself unemployed and unsure of what to do next.

One email in September kept it brief, with a link to a news story on the closure of 12 beds at a regional hospital with the message: “So you say there’s not a nursing embargo in the HSE? Go work that one out.”

In October, one emailed to say that they were unable to start the new HSE job they’d been offered that January. 

“There are at least three agency posts in my team while I wait on a HSE panel for a permanent job. How can this situation make fiscal or ethical sense?”

The responses given to these people after the original June deadline followed a similar pattern. 

Harris’ private secretary wrote to one in October to say they’d been advised by the HSE “that while there is no national recruitment embargo or moratorium, there is a priority requirement for all HSE services to maintain, or get to, an affordable staffing level that is sustainable in 2019 and 2020″. 

The response acknowledge that “non-critical replacement posts will be paused and said the preference was for these to be in place “for as short a period as necessary”. The email closes with a suggestion to contact the HSE for more information. 

‘No end in sight’

The issue has been repeatedly highlighted by unions within the sector as failing patients, adding to waiting lists and ultimately costing the HSE more in that they need to use more expensive agency staff to plug the gap caused by these roles not being filled.

Minister Harris, however, has repeated again and again that there’s not a recruitment embargo in the HSE.

In May, he called the measures put in place by the HSE “sensible”. He didn’t agree it was a freeze but said it could be “accurately described as individual hospital groups and community health organisations across the HSE needing to live within their allocated budget”.

At the end of November, he told independent TD Catherine Connolly in response to a parliamentary question in the Dáil: “I am advised by the HSE that while there is no national recruitment embargo or moratorium in place, there is a priority requirement for all HSE services to maintain, or get to, an affordable staffing level that is sustainable in 2019 and 2020, while also prioritising the delivery of safe services.”

He gave the same response again to a question from Roscommon-Galway TD Denis Naughten on 17 December. 

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Sean Murray

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