The decision to take industrial action follows a ballot of 58 health visitors employed by Lincolnshire County Council.
“It is unprecedented for the health visitors in Lincolnshire to vote for strike action”
According to Unite, 84.5% of those who returned their ballot papers voted in favour of a walk-out.
The union said a series of strikes were now planned, starting with a 48-hour stoppage beginning on 15 July.
This would be followed by 24-hour strikes on 19 and 22 July with another 48-hour walk-out on 25 July, said the union, which stated all strikes would start just after midnight.
The strikes were called after the county council apparently withheld annual pay rises for staff who transferred from the NHS to the local authority but were still on health service contracts.
Unite claimed its health visitor members in Lincolnshire had lost more than £2,000 a year since the transfer in October 2017.
The union, which encompasses the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, said it was also “seriously concerned about the downgrading of health visitors’ professional status”, which it said was resulting in fewer staff doing the specialist health visitor role.
“It is unprecedented for the health visitors in Lincolnshire to vote for strike action – the reasons being the council’s refusal to give them a pay rise since 2017 and concerns that their professional standards are being seriously eroded by a penny-pinching employer,” said Unite regional officer Steve Syson.
“The demise in numbers means that those left have excessive caseloads and more serious safeguarding cases to deal with,” he added.
Staff who transferred to the county council were able to remain on the health service’s Agenda for Change contract but were told they would not receive inflationary pay rises, as previously reported by Nursing Times.
According to Unite officers the council had also split the health visitor role into two levels with level two only available to those on the council contract.
Those on level one had “specialist elements” of the role removed, which limited their scope of practice and made it more in line with a staff nurse position, Unite has claimed.
Mr Syson described the situation as “outrageous” given falling health visitor numbers across England.
“At a time when there is the lowest number of heath visitors in England since September 2012, it is outrageous that the council seems determined to freeze the incomes of the health visitors and undermine their professional standards,” he said.
“Our members are very reluctant to strike as they know the impact it will have on Lincolnshire’s families, many of them in vulnerable circumstances,” he added.
He said he had written to the council in a bid to settle the dispute but had not yet received a reply.
“However, Unite’s door remains open for constructive talks 24/7 for the benefit of Lincolnshire families,” he added.
“We have always been prepared to sit round the table”
The county council told Nursing Times it was open to further talks in a bid to resolve the dispute “as soon as possible”.
“Lincolnshire County Council highly values the role of health visitors as part of our workforce. They are an essential part of children services and provide valuable advice, support and guidance to families,” said interim director of education Heather Sandy.
“We have always been prepared to sit round the table with Unite and will continue to be available for further talks so we can resolve the issue as soon as possible,” she added.
The county council said it currently employed a total of 116 health visitors.
It said inflationary pay rises would not apply to those who remained on Agenda for Changes contracts “for legal reasons”.
According to the authority, all have been offered an opportunity to transfer to the county council terms and conditions, whilst retaining their NHS pension, which would mean they would then receive the inflationary wage increase.
The county council said its pay scales reflected Agenda for Change pay and were “in fact, slightly higher”.
Meanwhile, the authority stated its job descriptions met “all the professional standards of specialist community public health nurses” in line with the Nursing and Midwifery Council standards.
According to the authority, 44 out of the 58 health visitors who were balloted by Unite voted in favour of going on strike.
“We understand that 44 of our 116-strong team of health visitors have voted to say they are prepared to take strike action following the ballot from Unite regarding their pay. This is less than a third of our workforce for children’s public health services,” said Ms Sandy.
She stressed plans were in place to ensure families were supported should the strikes go ahead.
“We wish to reassure the public that if these strikes go ahead, we have plans in place to cover absences, particularly in the most vulnerable areas such as safeguarding and primary birth visits. No-one will be left without support,” she said.