Working as a locum pharmacist is an increasingly popular career choice. Online locum job platform locatealocum.com says more than 10,000 pharmacists now work this way across the UK, and pharmacist and founder Jonathon Clarke says there are “obvious draws”.
“By being able to set your own schedule and only take on shifts that fit the days you are willing to work, you will always be able to control the amount of free time you have while you are working as a locum in a pharmacy,” he says.
Being able to claim expenses against taxes is another advantage, although Mr Clarke warns that while you will make more money at the outset, you have to remember that money must be set aside to cover taxes and national insurance contributions.
What was once seen as a suitably paid alternative to employed work may now be becoming less financially attractive. A recent survey by Locate A Locum suggests that pay rates are low and getting lower, with huge variations in rates across the country.
The research took into account more than 30,000 shifts across 69 cities and found the average pay rate for locum pharmacists around the UK is £22.05 per hour. Canterbury in Kent pays the highest at £25.83 per hour, followed by Aberdeen and St Davids (£24.44 and £24.31 respectively). London rates fell well below the UK average at £18.07 per hour, probably due to an oversupply of locums which keeps competition high and pay rates low. The lowest averages were in Northern Ireland. Armagh had an average rate of £15.25 per hour, with £17.07 in Bangor.
If the lack of pay parity comes as a disappointing surprise, the uncertainty around opportunities post-Brexit can shake up even the most positive of souls.
Mr Clarke says the effect Brexit will have on locums is hard to pin down, and in the shorter term if the forthcoming lifting of the government’s immigration cap on doctors and nurses rolls out to include pharmacists, this too could make it an employers’ market for locums.
Home secretary Sajid Javid confirmed in June that doctors and nurses are to be excluded from the cap on skilled worker visas, removing the restriction on the numbers who can be employed through the so-called Tier 2 visa route, which has had an annual cap of 20,700 since 2011.
Tom Brett Young, senior associate at Veale Wasbrough Vizards, which specialises in immigration law, Tier 2 sponsorship and Right to Work checks, says at the moment the only knock-on effect is that it will free up places every month for skilled workers from other fields. “All we’ve seen so far are leaks to the press, with no formal policy announcement on it,” he says.
“A consequence we have seen from data released recently is that no pharmacists have been approved since December, so potentially this could free up additional spaces, so roles such as pharmacists might qualify, but until more detail is released it’s hard to know.”
Employment law issues around locuming are also sticky, though the outcomes of some recent legal cases could be set to change how casual employees are treated. A Supreme Court judgment in June went in favour of Gary Smith, a heating engineer who won his claim against his employer Pimlico Plumbers, establishing that he was a worker and not self-employed.
While workers do not enjoy the full range of employment protection rights given to full-time staff, they are entitled to many benefits such as holiday pay, so the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgment is likely to set a precedent.
Almost all locums are treated as self-employed. This usually suits both parties because locums can treat certain expenses as tax deductible, they do not acquire unfair dismissal rights and there is a saving in national insurance contributions.
However, recent employment tribunal rulings have also challenged the self-employed status of locums. In the case of Wooler v Paydens, which was decided by Ashford employment tribunal, Grace Wooler had a written contract entitled “Agreement for services”. She was described as a locum pharmacist, paid gross and made her own arrangements to pay income tax and NI contributions. On some occasions she chose not to work. The tribunal held that Ms Wooler was not an employee or self-employed, but that she was a worker and could pursue a claim for holiday pay.
For those who don’t want the added pressure of sourcing work themselves, there are a growing number of locum agencies that do the searching for you. However, locums can have a love/hate relationship with agencies, and there are pros and cons with letting a third party source and set up jobs for you.
@DullPharmacist is the Twitter handle of a locum pharmacist who works in the West Midlands. “My experience with agencies has been really good in the past, but now I manage my own bookings and tend not to use agencies,” they say. “The pharmacy companies are building big databases and emailing locums directly, but this can have a negative impact on rates as they are standardising rates across geographies and there is less scope for supply/demand-related rate variations. A number of larger companies and independents are also using the funding cuts as an excuse to cut rates below the market value.”
Mr Clarke says his own bad experiences with agencies in the past were the main reason he started Locate A Locum, which connects pharmacists with employers online without the need for agencies. “Do your homework before you sign up with an agency,” he says. “Do they put your best interests first? Do they sign you into a contract that means you cannot take locum work elsewhere? Do they provide correct and timely information on locum slots? And will you be paid on time?”
Locums with complaints about the conduct of a recruitment or employment agency can address them to the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, but what else needs to be addressed to make locum life more secure?
If you have a dispute with your employer about your status, charity Pharmacist Support says trade unions or the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), may be able to help with clarification. Even if you are not in dispute, it’s worth taking measures to protect yourself. Getting a contract in place with the pharmacies you work in can help define your tax status. “The absence of such an agreement or the exclusive imposition of the employer’s terms may put the locum at a disadvantage,” says the PDA. A suggested contract for locum services is available on the-pda.org.
Like any role, making a success of locum work takes commitment, and those already working in the field are clear about what that entails.
@DullPharmacist says being a career locum solely in community pharmacy is a poor choice. “There is a wider scope of roles for pharmacists and it is very saturated at the moment,” they say. Their advice is to spread the net wider. “I would recommend being a good pharmacist, employed or as a locum.”
Certainly, the life of a locum is not for everyone, but it’s a great fit for many pharmacists. “Locuming can be lonely,” says Mr Clarke, “and finding work as a locum pharmacist can be a painful and drawn-out process. I constantly hear from locums that no work is available, but the work is there. The key is finding it. I strongly believe in three essential techniques to be successful in finding and securing locum work: get your name out there, be easily contactable and leave a good impression after you have completed the shift.
“I’ve been a locum for more than five years and I’d certainly recommend it. Locuming is enjoyable, but the key to winning as a locum is being flexible.”
In just one year, when The Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA) received nearly 3,000 queries, more than a fifth of these involved locum contract disputes. As a result, it produced a guide for locums about their employment rights, which can be downloaded from website, the-pda.org.
“Before deciding whether you should work as an employee, a self-employed contractor or even a worker, you should consider what each category of ‘work’ means, because the rights you will have depend on your status and what will work for you,” says the PDA.
HMRC considers a locum is probably self-employed if a standard NPA or PDA contract has been signed, and if he or she:
HMRC is more likely to consider a locum an employee if they take over the full range of duties of an employed pharmacist, which may include: