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Medical scientists picketing outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin this afternoon. Jane Moore
Pay Claim

'We have to do this': Medical scientists seeking pay parity say strike action was their last resort

One scientist told The Journal that staff feel “burnt-out” due to working mandatory overtime rosters, with many leaving the profession.

MEDICAL SCIENTISTS AT the Mater Hospital in Dublin have told The Journal they felt they had no other option but to take part in a one-day strike over a decades-long pay dispute. 

Over 2,100 medical scientists across the country are involved in the industrial action, which centres on a number of issues, including a demand for pay parity with colleagues in laboratories who are doing the same work.

Today’s action, organised by the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA), involves the withdrawal of routine laboratory services from 8am to 8pm, which is affecting routine hospital and GP services across the country.

The union said the vast majority were on picket lines today at all public voluntary and HSE hospitals.

Medical scientists carry out a range of diagnostics tests, including blood tests and analysis of tissue samples for inpatients in hospitals and GP patients in the community.

Thousands of patients across the country have been contacted since Monday to inform them that their appointment or procedure has been cancelled and will be rescheduled for another date.

The HSE said that there will be a delay in accessing services in Emergency Departments and that up to 14,000 outpatient appointments across the country could be cancelled due to the strike. 

Mags Hylands has been working as a medical scientist for 33 years. She told The Journal that while everyone agrees that those working in the profession should have pay parity, they have yet to be granted it.

“It’s 20 years we’ve been asking for pay parity to be restored. The HSE agrees that we should have it, the Department of Health agree that we should have it but they just still haven’t given it to us,” she said.

A 2001 expert group report recommended that medical scientists should be paid on a scale equal to biochemists. This was briefly implemented, but was lost within months in the first public service benchmarking process in June 2002, which evaluated the pay and jobs of public service roles.

The union has said medical scientists are paid on average 8% less than colleagues in hospital laboratories who are doing the same work.

Hylands also said there are issues with career progression in the profession as well.

“We’re extremely well qualified, highly educated, any promotional grade in our profession requires a Master’s degree. We’ve no career progression to utilise our skills, and a lot of things in the medical labs are changing, with more and more technology in Molecular Pathology, molecular genetics a lot more skilled as technologies advanced and we have no way of progressing our careers in those more specialised areas,” she said. 

We want a better career structure so that we can hopefully try and retain our graduates. Otherwise, our profession is dying, because we won’t be able to staff it.

The union highlighted that up to 20% of approved medical scientists posts are unfilled in hospitals and there are fewer career development opportunities than comparable colleagues.

“We’re advertising and not getting anybody to either apply or nobody qualified to apply,” Hylands added.

‘Extremely stressful’

Anna Purcell, who has worked as a medical scientist at the Mater for 23 years, told The Journal that the job has become “extremely stressful”.

“Staff feel burnt-out, they’re asked to do mandatory overtime rosters that they don’t want to do on top of their 37-hour week,” she said.

“They can’t take time off because we’ve no staff to fulfill rosters. We fulfill them because we have a vocation to do that, but staff are burnt-out and they’re leaving, and nobody wants to do the job now.

“We need to take action now. Unfortunately, we didn’t want to do this, but we did vote for it because it’s the end of the tether for us now.”

In a ballot of MLSA members last November, 98% voted in favour of taking the action.

If no progress is made today, a further two days of action are planned for 24-25 May, while three further days of action are planned for 31 May, and 1-2 June.

Purcell said she and her colleagues want to go back to work and don’t want to strike for another day, but feel they have no other option.

“We had original dates [for strikes] in March, and we cancelled them so we could go back into talks again, so we have given every opportunity for this to happen, and unfortunately it hasn’t,” she said.

While we apologise for the disruption to patients, to our colleagues, to the public, we have to do this, unfortunately. It goes against our grain to do this, but we have to.

Speaking in the Dáil yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin asked that the strike action not go ahead so that the MLSA could continue talks before the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). 

“A Public Service Agreement Group, comprised of union and civil service representatives with an independent chair, met on 11 May on this matter. They recommended that the matter be immediately referred to the WRC, and that industrial peace be maintained in the meantime,” he said.

“While the MLSA have agreed to engage at the WRC, they have not agreed to lift their strike action, which is in breach of ‘Building Momentum’.

“I would appreciate it and would ask again, that the strike action now be lifted and to allow the process to take its course,” the Taoiseach said. 

Mick Amoruso, the chief medical scientist in biochemistry at the Mater, told The Journal that he found the Taoiseach’s comments “misleading”.

“We have done this, and they’ve offered us nothing. He asked us to cancel strike action and then go back to WRC, but we have given them plenty of opportunity and they have come up with nothing new,” he said.

“For us to to cancel the strike today, then go back to the WRC who are going to give us nothing again, it’s going back to square one. We’ve done it.”

Speaking about the Covid-19 pandemic, Amoruso said medical scientists were the people conducting the tests.

“Nobody sees that. They just see the nurses and they see the doctors and the frontline staff, but we were the people doing all the testing, working, you know, hours and hours overnight,” he said.

‘Significant impact’

HSE National Director for Acute Services Liam Woods said the vast majority outpatient procedures scheduled for today will have to be cancelled.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, he said: “If you look across the whole health system, there’s around 14,000 outpatient attendances every day in Ireland, and the majority of those we think, today, will be cancelled.

“The impact is significant. In terms of planned surgery, there will be significant cancellations, all bar very urgent cancer and transplant surgeries, and one or two other exceptions will go ahead.”

He added that dialysis services are running as normal and emergency testing around dialysis is available.

Megan Gallagher, who has worked at the Mater since 2011, told The Journal that medical scientists are providing an emergency service at the hospital.

“I was in from 8am for a couple of hours. I work in the transfusion lab, so people that need blood are still getting the blood,” she said.

“We’re trying to not impact patients, but we work in a hospital and you can’t have a strike and not affect patients.

Unfortunately, we don’t want to be on strike. We don’t want this to go on any longer than is necessary. We don’t want the Earth. What we want is not very large, but it can be easily granted and they should have been granted 20 years ago.

Gallagher said they just want to be treated fairly.

“We don’t strike. This is the first time I’ve ever gotten strike in my life. We provide an essential service and it needs to be recognised, and we need to be paid the same as our colleagues that are doing the exact same job,” she said. 

She said medical scientists worked “every day in the lab” throughout the pandemic.

“We’re the people that do the Covid testing and we test all of your samples, your blood, your urine. If you need to have a transplant, it’s medical scientists that do all that work. Anyone that ever comes into a hospital that gets bloods done, it’s a medical scientist that tests them,” she said. 

Woods said that all patients have been notified if their service has been cancelled, and said if patients haven’t received a call to cancel their service, then it’s likely the service is proceeding.

He said that there is “variation across the country to some extent” and urged anyone who had an appointment to check the HSE website, where the services available today at each hospital around the country are listed.

Woods added procedures would be rescheduled “as soon as possible after this action”. 

“I’m conscious this is a one-day action. There is of course a threat for further two-day action next week. We would hope to have the issues underlying the dispute resolved before that, but in the event that they’re not, clearly that would have further significant impact,” he said.

All routine GP testing services are also suspended for the day, Woods said.

“Hospital laboratories do a very wide range and number of tests for GPS, so those tests will be deferred for today. I think there will be an urgent service available for urgent GP tests, but it will be very limited,” he said.

The action is also expected to have a knock-on effect on Emergency Departments leading to delays for patients with non-urgent care needs.

Woods said that all Emergency Departments are open and will prioritise the treatment of the sickest and most urgent patients, adding that the HSE would ask that patients go first to their GP where feasible. 

“I think the impact will be that there will be a slowing down of service available to the Emergency Department, so it will be slower to get into a hospital and in fact, may also be slower to get out, but in emergency service firms, there are services available, but they will be somewhat restricted.

On the possibility of trolley numbers rising as a result of the strike action, he said: “Unfortunately, yes. We don’t see any anything but that in terms of the speed of turnaround of tests, that’s the likely impact.”

Speaking to The Journal ahead of the strike, General Secretary of the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) Terry Casey said members did not want to take this action, but felt like they were left with no other choice after 20 years of trying to solve these issues.

Casey said the association had been pushing the HSE for two decades to reinstate pay parity, as was recommended in the expert report.

‘Exasperated and frustrated’

He said staff are “exasperated and frustrated” at the lack of progress that has been made and have now started to lose confidence in the dispute resolution process.

“They really believe there is merit to the argument they’re making and they can’t comprehend why we haven’t been able to make progress on it,” he said.

“I have to stress that they’re proud healthcare workers, they want to be in the lab assisting with the diagnosis and treatment of patients, labs are critical to the effective running of the healthcare service but there’s a measure of anger now among members that we’ve got to this stage.

“While they are frontline workers they’re not visible to patients so they do feel that they’re forgotten.”

Speaking during an Oireachtas Health Committee this morning, Sinn Féin’s health spokesperson David Cullinane asked HSE chief Paul Reid why we are at a point where medical scientists have to take industrial action. 

“The last time you were before this Oireachtas Committee, you were with Mr Robert Watt, and there was question marks, and not to get into the rights and wrongs of it, but questions around a secondment of one individual which would have cost €2 million a year,” he said.

“The money was found to enable that to happen, and it’s since been paused. This will cost €10 million, we’re being told, to deal with 2,000 medical scientists who have a claim.”

‘A legacy of history’

Reid acknowledged that there was “very much a legacy of history” in relation to pay parity and other issues that had caused the strike to take place. 

“Certainly, where it’s at at the minute and our commitment to it is, obviously when industrial action happens, in particular a strike, it’s inevitable that there’s been a breakdown in the industrial relations discussions. There were discussions, including yesterday, in the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). Our commitment is strong in terms of the WRC commitments,” he said.

Our commitment is to stay in the room and try to resolve this.

Reid said he “hugely recognised” the role medical scientists played during the Covid-19 pandemic and almost in everyday healthcare. 

“The role that they have played throughout Covid-19 has been phenomenal. Their response, their commitment, the sacrifices that they and many other healthcare workers made has been exemplary,” he said.

“On a day-to-day basis, as you can see from the impact of a dispute today… It has a significant impact on the running of the health system, not just on waiting lists, but in terms of Emergency Departments and whole flow throughout hospitals.”

Cullinane urged the Committee to write to the Department of Health and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in an effort to resolve the issue. 

“There needs to be negotiation to bring this to an end because it’s obviously going to have a big impact on acute services, and already we’re hearing about possible cancellation of procedures as well, which is unacceptable. We all want it to be resolved,” he said.

Woods said that the HSE was in talks yesterday at the WRC and remains “hopeful that talks can resume with a view to resolving matters”. 

With reporting from Michelle Hennessy. 

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