A north eastern foundation trust has revealed plans to dismiss and re-hire 5,542 staff to make savings on its sick pay bill, in a move believed to be unprecedented in its scale.  

North Tees and Hartlepool FT wants staff to sign a new contract which would mean they no longer received enhanced sick pay for out-of-hours shifts – a change which could save around £400,000 a year. Sickness enhancements are additional payments made to staff who are rostered to work but are off sick during unsocial hours or bank holidays.

The move is believed to be the largest use of ‘dismiss and re-engage’ in the NHS and has sparked anger from unions, who suggested it might be an attempt to undermine national negotiations.

North Tees and Hartlepool has a £40m savings target and claims the idea to drop sick pay enhancements was among suggestions from staff.

Sick pay cost the trust £5.7m in 2011-12, and £2.54m between April and August this year. Of these sums, sickness enhancements accounted for £432,961 last year, and £217,479 between April and August 2012-13.

Human resources director Clare Curran said the full cost of sickness absence was even higher, as the trust had to use high-cost agency staff to cover the gaps.

She added: “If the sickness enhancements for this year continue at their current rate, then we will be paying the equivalent of 20 staff nurse posts just to afford it. It simply doesn’t make sense to pay staff unsocial hours enhancements when they haven’t worked unsocial hours.”

An employment law specialist told HSJ: “I can’t think of a trust which has done it on this scale before. In the current financially pressured times its possible we will see more instances of dismissal and re-engagement.”

The trust’s bid to make local changes to national Agenda for Change terms and conditions comes as NHS Employers is in negotiation with unions about modifications to Agenda for Change, which would include ending unsocial hours sick pay.

Ms Curran said: “We do support national terms and conditions. We would welcome national resolution on this issue, however we are beginning our own consultation because we are growing increasingly frustrated and we feel we cannot wait for a national resolution.

“We will keep a close eye on the national position to see if any progress is being made.”

However, Royal College of Nursing regional director Glenn Turp said the trust was “bullying and intimidating the workforce”, adding: “This is an incredibly confrontational approach, particularly as national negotiations are still continuing. It is almost as if they are deliberately trying to undermine national negotiations.”

Christina McAnea, head of health at Unison, said the trust was seeking a short term fix and Unison would advise staff not to sign anything.

She said: “The employers in this case have described it as a consultation exercise, but this can hardly be the case when the only options for staff are to accept the changes or be sacked,” she added.