Community pharmacists acting together to improve pay

For years, rates of pay for community pharmacists have been reducing in real terms, but by joining together to act collectively pharmacists now can take action through their independent trade union. This article outlines key outcomes secured by community pharmacists in recent years acting as a trade union and some of the additional options for action they now have available.

Mon 23rd August 2021 PDA Union

Pharmacists are increasingly aware of the reduction in the value of the pay being offered by community pharmacy employers. They understand that unless pay increases keep up with inflation the buying power of their salary reduces in real terms. Many pharmacy employers promote the belief that there is a significant shortage of pharmacists, yet then continue with an approach to pay that will further reduce the real terms value of the pay they offer.  This defies the basic laws of economics that if demand outstrips supply then “prices”, or in this case rates of pay, should increase.

This situation has been ongoing for several years, but factors are changing as a consequence of pharmacists at Boots securing trade union recognition.  This historic change has opened up further options for pharmacists to act.

When there is no independent trade union in a sector

Where there is no recognised trade union in a sector, employers unilaterally decide the approach to pay. Some bad employers might even try and suppress the market rate for a job by explicitly (which would be illegal), or implicitly seeking to ensure similar employers do not raise rates of pay.

Those companies that are well managed will understand the labour market for those they wish to employ and respond to the pressures of supply and demand of those with the skills, experience, and qualification they need; while other management bodies may just continue to try and cut employment costs even beyond the point that it damages the long term future for the business.  In a company that starts with a history of better management and a strong market position the damage caused by such an approach takes longer to materialise than it does in a company that doesn’t have those advantages, but it still happens eventually.

Where employees see they have realistic alternative options to work elsewhere they are more likely to eventually leave.  That ultimately leads to a position where employers, if not the whole sector, experience a genuine shortage because of the short-sighted action of bad management at influential employers.

The situation with pay rates in community pharmacy

In the PDA’s experience all pharmacists are primarily motivated by a desire to help patients. They also want professional fulfilment and to work in environments that are safe and in which they feel respected and as people they also must live and perhaps support a family, so alongside those other factors, they also need to be suitably remunerated. All employees will also assess the balance between the pay they receive and the demands of any job.

Alongside the decreasing value of pay, the demands placed upon community pharmacists have increased over recent years, and this has affected the balance that individuals have sought. Inadequate staffing and other safety concerns, and years of under investment in the workplace environment are factors that can result in workplace stress. Requests to work unpaid, for example to undertake training or to sign in advance as the responsible pharmacist, further reduce the real hourly rate of pay.  However, a sense that the sector is increasingly treated as a retail environment, with diminishing respect for the role of pharmacists from the corporate leadership, is probably the most significant factor.

Where there has been an option to practice elsewhere, especially with greater clinical respect and more stable work patterns, such as in GP practices, many community pharmacists have made a move, and many more seek that opportunity in a location suitable for them.  However, for a variety of reasons, some pharmacists continue to stay despite this scenario; perhaps the momentum and memory of once being proud of where they worked continues to take them forward, or the end of their career is in sight, and they are emotionally and financially committed to a pension scheme.

There are many personal reasons why pharmacists may choose to stay with an employer that values them less each passing year, but though they may stay employed, an increasing number may no longer talk positively about their experience nor recommend that employer to others, and word inevitably gets around. Sadly, anyone who has recently spoken to a group of pharmacy students will know how few openly want a career in community pharmacy due to its current reputation.

If individual pharmacists are unhappy with their pay they might stay, but withdraw their goodwill.  For example, they may no longer agree to sign advance declarations or be flexible in the activity they undertake beyond that which they are required to do under their contract.  However, the action of one individual alone is unlikely to shift the position of a large company.

PDAU Recognition

The above is how it has been, and sadly the sector seems to be a long way down that path, but pharmacists are changing this dynamic.  By securing independent trade union recognition in 2019, those pharmacists employed at Boots have disrupted this status quo, and now the employer must negotiate pay with pharmacists through their representatives.

In 2019, pharmacists supported by experienced union officials submitted a pay claim that called for

  • Fairness & equality
  • Transparency
  • Respect & Recognition

They then negotiated a pay settlement that moved towards these goals.   This delivered increases greater than those unilaterally decided by management in the previous year as well as beginning to make improvements to the pay system

In early 2020 a further increase was negotiated that included removing the lower starting salary for Newly Qualified Pharmacists, a rate that had not been increased for many years.  This gave some pharmacists increases of over 11%

At the end of 2020, negotiations between company and the pharmacist representatives did not reach a settlement and were escalated to talks with ACAS. Following ACAS’ involvement, a settlement was reached in December, but this did not include a pay increase for most pharmacists.  This result was disappointing for pharmacists, however had they still not been able to negotiate in 2020, just as it was before 2019, there would still have been no pay increases but it is extremely unlikely that the changes which were secured, including removal of the lower pay ranges for those in Northern Ireland, would have happened.  Without union recognition, management would simply have announced in November that there would be no increase due to the pandemic trading conditions and that would have been the end of it.

In addition to the direct impact of pay settlements it is also clear that more pharmacists at Boots are talking about pay and by raising concerns with their line managers some have also received in-year pay increases agreed by local management.  Until pharmacists began negotiating pay through the PDAU, far fewer understood that Boots pay system is based on paying starting salaries which are only 80% of the median average pay paid by competitors and so were less sure what to challenge.  The PDA on-line pay Ready Reckoner allows Boots Pharmacists to know where they pay sits in the pay range for their role and is a good basis on which to discuss pay with their line manager

2021 pay claims in Community Pharmacy

The pay claim for Boots in 2021 seeks to begin to move pay back to its previous real terms value by seeking increases that are above the rate of inflation, this is important following the disappointing 2020 settlement from Boots on top of previous years of sub-inflation increases.

Pharmacists at Lloyds Pharmacy built upon the efforts of colleagues at Boots and secured their own right to negotiate pay, with the first pay negotiations there set to begin in late 2021 for an early 2022 implementation.

What is industrial action?

If no settlement is reached between the company and trade union, there are also potential actions that employees can take together, which were not available when the management were allowed to unilaterally decide on matters relating to pay.

Industrial action happens when trade union members are in a dispute with their employer that can’t be solved through negotiations. It involves employees at that employer as a last resort to resolving a dispute. Industrial action is when workers:

  • go on strike; or
  • take other action, like refusing to do overtime (known as ‘action short of a strike’)

A trade union can only call for industrial action if most of its members involved support it in a properly organised postal vote – called a ‘ballot’.

If you’re a trade union member, you have the right to vote in the ballot before your union asks you to take industrial action. You don’t have to take part in industrial action and can’t be disciplined by your union if you don’t, however the fewer people that take part in the industrial action the less of an impact it has.

Though pharmacists care about their patients, they would not be the first health professionals to take industrial action. Doctors, midwives, nurses, and others have all taken industrial action in recent years. For the Royal College of Midwives, their industrial action in 2014 was the first in their 100 year history, but no doubt they may take action again. If that is what it will take for the employer to change their position, then the consequence of not taking industrial action is that the employer won’t change.

It is worth stressing that when other health professionals have taken industrial action the form of that action has been determined by members with the emphasis on ensuring that while patient care may have been disrupted it has not been compromised. Midwives and Therapeutic Radiographers, for example, ensured patients were safe at all times during their strike action. This approach led to successful outcomes.

What can individual pharmacists do to help?

It is in the interest of every pharmacist for the rates of pay for the profession to reflect the value of what pharmacists do.  Every pharmacist in a community pharmacy can make a difference by doing the following:

  • Join the PDA, every extra member is an addition to the pharmacists’ bargaining power
  • Participate in PDA surveys, events, ballots, and other activity
  • Encourage colleagues at your employer to join too
  • Encourage pharmacists elsewhere in the sector to join too, the PDA have made no secret that they expect to secure recognition at other employers in due course.
  • Whether or not PDA Unoin has yet secured recognition at your employer yet, volunteer to be trained as a Trade Union representative.

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The Pharmacists' Defence Association is an appointed representative in respect of insurance mediation activities only of
The Pharmacy Insurance Agency Limited which is registered in England and Wales under company number 2591975
and is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (Register No 307063)

The PDA Union is recognised by the Certification Officer as an independent trade union.

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