The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has warned that industrial stability could be in jeopardy if the staff recruitment and retention problem in the health service is not addressed in the public pay talks which get under way on Monday.
Earlier today, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, ruled out any special additional pay deal for doctors and nurses to make posts more attractive.
Arriving for preliminary meetings at the Workplace Relations Commission, INMO General Secretary Liam Doran said the nurses had a simple agenda: they want back the pay and conditions that were cut during the economic crisis.
They also want measures to address the recruitment and retention issues in healthcare grades.
He said they were about to find out whether the Government was prepared to agree a flexible deal that would respond to both the needs of members and the requirements of the health service.
Asked about the Minister ruling out special pay deals, Mr Doran said the same minister wanted stability and certainty for the future.
Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, Mr Donohoe said that the Government would not be able to do a particular pay deal that was separate to any group in a collective agreement.
Yesterday, the INMO, the Irish Medical Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses Association highlighted the implications of staff shortages in the public health service, and warned that pay rises would have to be a central part of any solution to those shortages.
However, the Minister said an orderly unwinding of the financial emergency legislation known as FEMPI would be the best and most affordable way of developing a better package for people to keep them.
He said that when pay cuts and a pension levy were imposed during the crisis, workers earning €35,000 experienced the same pay cut no matter what job they were doing.
Furthermore, he said if they started to unwind those measures at a different rate for different public servants, it would be neither fair nor affordable.
He said that if the Government did a deal for one part of the public service like nurses, it could trigger further pay claims in other grades.
Mr Donohoe said unwinding all of the FEMPI cuts at once would cost €1.4 billion, comprised of €700m in pay cuts, and €700 million in pension levy deductions.
The actual pace of unwinding would be subject to negotiations.
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He also said that the Government wanted an agreement on pensions that is sustainable, and noted that the value of pensions for those recruited after 2013 in a new less generous scheme was less than for those joining before that date.
Sources have forecast that in future, public servants may end up paying different contribution rates depending on whether they are in the more generous or less generous scheme, with the highest contributions for those in a so-called "fast accrual" scheme, where grades like gardaí, the Defence Forces, judges and certain politicians can retire on full pension without completing 40 years service.
While unions are seeking the abolition of the 15 million unpaid hours per year imposed during the crisis, Mr Donohoe confirmed that he would be seeking to retain them.
He noted that they save the taxpayer €600 million a year, adding that if the Government lost those hours, they would face the cost of hiring €12,000 additional staff.
He acknowledged that there was no guarantee that a further public service pay deal can be reached, but said failure to agree one would be an appalling vista.
The Workplace Relations Commission which will oversee the talks on an extension to the Lansdowne Road Agreement will hold preliminary meetings with the parties over the coming days, and the talks will formally commence on Monday.
ASTI to protest over start of negotiations
Meanwhile, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, which rejected the Lansdowne Road Agreement, will protest outside Leinster House later today to mark the start of pay negotiations.
The ASTI wants the talks to address the issue of lower pay scales for newer recruits, and points out that an ASTI member starting in 2017 is earning 21% less than they would have in 2010.
In the Dáil, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith predicted that public sector workers would reject any deal that did not scrap the so-called "free hours", or fully address pay equality issues.
Labour Leader Brendan Howlin called for groups representing gardaí and the Defence Forces to be allowed to participate in future pay talks, and to affiliate to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
Those grades do not yet have full access to the industrial relations mechanisms of the state.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny responded that a working group was examining the issue, and had identified key issues such as whether the relevant associations should become full trade unions.