WORKFORCE: Central Manchester Foundation Trust acted “unlawfully” by attempting to withhold incremental pay rises from staff who took too much sick leave, a tribunal has found.

The ruling comes less than two weeks after the acute provider was forced to pay out £1m for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination against Elliot Browne, former divisional director for clinical scientific services.

The trust had sought to deny incremental pay rises – which staff are entitled to under Agenda for Change – to 83 staff members who had claimed more than 18 days sick leave in a year. It claimed the policy had helped reduce sickness absence.

The case was brought jointly by the Royal College of Nursing and the Unite and Unison unions.

Among the test cases considered by the tribunal was a nurse who was denied a pay rise because of a period of absence following emergency surgery after contracting appendicitis.

Meanwhile, a medical technical officer who had been the victim of an unprovoked physical assault was denied a pay rise despite attempting to return to work before the 18-day threshold took effect. She had been sent home by the trust’s occupational health nurse as being unfit to work.

The tribunal concluded that, while incremental rises could be deferred if an employee’s performance was not satisfactory, this did not include sickness absence, and that the trust’s actions amounted to “a series of unlawful deductions from [the claimants’] pay”.

Unison regional head of health Paul Foley said it was a “victory for fairness”, and meant that other trusts would not be able to “penalise health workers in a similar way”.

A trust spokeswoman said the incremental pay progression policy was introduced in November 2010 in order to help retain permanent jobs and to reduce the use of bank and agency staff.

“Whilst the policy was in force there was a significant reduction in absence levels and a substantial increase in staff compliance with appraisals and mandatory training,” she said. “In light of this judgement the policy will be withdrawn.”