Health visitors in Lincolnshire have voted to strike for a month amid a long-running row over pay and professional standards.
Trade union Unite claims that some health visitors in the county could lose £150,000 over the course of the careers as they prepare to strike from 18 November to 13 December.
Unite represents 76 of the 126 health visitors employed by Lincolnshire County Council, of which a majority (67%) voted last month for the latest round of walkouts following 32 days of strikes since July and around 450 shifts lost.
Unite calculates that the health visitors have lost more than £2,000 a year since they were transferred from the NHS in October 2017. They have not received an inflationary pay rise as they remained on Agenda for Change terms and conditions.
Though the health visitors can transfer to the Lincolnshire County Council contract, Unite and its members are critical of the council’s new ‘career progression scheme’, introduced on 1 October, which splits staff into grade 9 and more ‘senior’ grade 10 roles.
To progress to grade 10 on the scheme, staff must have worked as a health visitor for four years among other competencies. But Unite argues that all health visitor roles equate to a grade 10, prompting health visitors on both grade 9 and 10 to strike.
The ‘possibility of getting stuck at the top of the grade 9’ would mean ‘a direct pay cut of £4,000 per annum’ compared to what a health visitor can earn in the NHS or other councils, Unite regional officer Steve Syson wrote in a letter to the county council.
Mr Syson also said that the month-long strike demonstrates a ‘deepening crisis’ in the service and ‘the adverse impact this is having on Lincolnshrie families and children’.
Unite regional secretary for the East Midlands Paresh Patel added: ‘This is a crisis entirely of this cash-rich council’s making and this month-long strike by health visitors is unprecedented in modern times – and a searing indictment of the council’s narrow minded and incompetent managerial style.
‘Unite will give our health visitor members maximum support during the coming strike – their fight is not just for Lincolnshire, but they are in the vanguard of raising awareness of the crisis enveloping the profession across England.’
Since the dispute began this summer, Unite claims that more than 20 health visitors have left their roles: 14 have already gone while eight will soon be departing for new jobs.
Heather Sandy, interim director of education at Lincolnshire County Council, expressed disappointment that the ‘industrial action is being pursued’ despite ‘constructive discussions’ with Unite.
She said that the issues are ‘part of a national campaign by Unite which has less relevance to Lincolnshire than elsewhere’.
She explained: ‘In Lincolnshire, we have increased the number of health visitors across the county, we have maintained the number of visits families receive from a health visitor and we have increased pay for this workforce in line and above the NHS.’
The council’s career progression scheme means staff members do not have to ‘remain on a static salary’ and ‘can move on in their careers and be financially rewarded beyond that available in the NHS,’ she argued.
She continued: ‘ Unite’s suggestion that all health visitors should have a starting salary £3500 above their colleagues in the health service is financially unsustainable and would have serious implications for bordering NHS service recruitment.
‘Whilst some health visitors have voted to strike, we expect a large proportion of our health visiting staff will continue to deliver safe and effective support to families and their children, as they have since joining Lincolnshire County Council.’
Last month, Lincoln MP Karen Lee, who is also a nurse, voiced concerns that the career progression scheme would ‘divide the health visitor role’ at a debate at Westminster Hall.
The debate came in response to the Institute of Health Visiting revealing a 31.8% reduction of health visitors from 10,309 to 7,026 in England since 2015.