In order to fight COVID-19, the government of Slovenia passed a law that increased the maximum pay of doctors and dentists working in the public sector. But the Constitutional Court decided to annul it, considering it was not a necessary measure to reduce the consequences of the COVID-19 infection outbreaks.
The Constitutional Court of Slovenia decided to annul the article of a law that would increase the maximum wage of doctors and dentists working in the public sector. Judges ruled that the measure was not necessary to eliminate the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislation, passed as an emergency measure at the end of last year, was going to increase the ceiling wage for doctors and dentists to seven grades in the public salary grid, from the 57th to the 63rd grade. It would also open the door to a pay raise for all doctors and dentists.
But the announcement of potential higher pays only for a subgroup of public sector employees grew criticism among public sector trade unions, arguing all civil servants should receive the same grade increase.
Trade unions want to defend Slovenia’s unified civil servant pay system. A common salary grid for all public sector employees was implemented more than ten years ago. It aimed at ensuring fairer pays for comparable jobs across public entities and transparency. But by comparing public sectors – police, judiciary and healthcare for instance – some occupational groups consider they deserve higher salaries than others.
Five public trade unions brought the case to the Constitutional Court claiming it infringed the legislative referendum provisions of Slovenia’s constitution.
A legislative referendum can be organized in Slovenia to decide on a law if a petition gathers at least one-fifth of all voters. Some exceptions are included for calling a referendum, such as for “laws on emergency measures to ensure the defense of the state, security or the elimination of the consequences of natural disasters”.The government then ruled out the possibility for the population to call for a referendum because it considered the law as an emergency.
Almost 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded so far according to the World Health Organization, for a country with a little more than 2 million people. Almost 3 million vaccine doses have been administered and 7,500 deaths from the coronavirus have been reported.
In its ruling published on April 11, the Constitutional Court does consider the situation a natural disaster and agrees on the legal ground that a series of urgent measures were required to tackle the healthcare situation in the country.
However, it should not have prohibited a referendum on this article because raising the wage ceiling for doctors and dentists is not “a necessary measure to eliminate the consequences of the mass outbreak of COVID-19 infections”.
The government argued that the difficult epidemiological situation pushed doctors to leave the public sector. The court judged that the high turnover, the lack of doctors or the low pay of young professionals are not related to COVID-19 but are “due to long-standing dissatisfaction of doctors with the pay system and other working conditions”.
In Slovenia, doctors who left to work abroad in 2019 accounted for a third of the annual medicine graduates of the country, according to the government quoting OECD statistics.
Moreover, the government already issued bonus pays for doctors in February and nurses in December because of the demanding context.
The court also wrote that the measure would mostly raise the cap and allow an increase for the highest salaries but that it would not necessarily solve issues of low-paid young doctors.
Trade unions said they expected the decision in favor of their petition. The court had already suspended the implementation of the legislation two months ago until it issued its judgment. A potential unconstitutionality would have caused “serious harmful consequences”, with the impossibility of retroactively getting refunded from the salaries already paid. Seven judges voted in favor of the ruling and two against it.
“Trade unions have always warned that the adoption of interventionist laws amending systemic legislation is constitutionally questionable,” stated the Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia after the ruling. “The government was fully aware when it adopted the law that it was abusing the referendum ban to regulate only one area of wages”.
The decision comes a few days before parliamentary elections that will be held on April 24.
The Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions now expects “the future government to start negotiations on public sector wages immediately” with trade unions, “convinced that social dialogue would reduce the need to submit requests for the assessment of constitutionality”.
According to the Minister of Public Administration Boštjan Koritnik, giving a similar raise to all 188,000 civil servants would cost 1.5 billion euros ($1.6bn), approximately 8,000 euros ($8,700) for each, and was considered financially unsustainable.
Last week, trade unions refused to participate in a working group on the healthcare wage system with the current government, which therefore contacted directly the chambers of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses and midwives to discuss the matter.