Community nurses vote for bans

Management at Albury is breaching the nurses’ award by failing to backfill annual leave. Community mental health nurses and their clients are the casualties.

Albury community mental health nurses have banned a range of administrative and other tasks in response to management’s failure to backfill annual leave.

Nurses said management had failed to backfill 711 leave days from the start of 2013 to September 24. This forced nurses to cancel 365 client appointments despite doing lots of unpaid overtime.

At the same time management failed to advertise to fill about three FTE (full time equivalent) vacant positions in the community mental health nursing team. Some had been vacant for more than a year.

Nurses voted to ban:

  • attendance at staff and other non-clinical meetings
  • typing minutes for any meetings
  • doing data entry
  • using the sign-in book.

They also decided to return to base at the end of shift from each outreach, and ensure that two clinicians attend all appointments, in line with service policy.

The branch voted to escalate the bans a week later when management failed to give a written commitment to tackle the problems.

Nurses put additional bans on providing data to one of the service’s NGO partners and attending inter-agency meetings.

Margaret Traill, secretary of the Albury Community and Mental Health Nurses Branch of the NSWNMA, said Murrumbidgee Local Health District management had shown “a lack of transparency and lack of goodwill” by failing to co-operate with nurses to find solutions to serious staffing issues.

“We should be working together to solve these issues but management are taking a very top down, authoritarian approach,” she said.

Margaret said management was in breach of the 2011 nurses award, which says community nurses will be backfilled for four weeks annual leave and longer if they work shift work or weekends.

“LHD management has admitted in a letter to the branch that they do receive funding for backfilling leave, after verbally denying that they received any such funding.

“We can only assume they are using the money for service delivery elsewhere. Nurses should not be denied their award conditions in order to plug funding shortfalls in other areas.

“The members are very determined – they feel that this is something they have to follow through on.

“If nurses are expected to put up with an excessive workload when colleagues take annual leave, then management should be accountable for the public money they are entrusted with to fund a mental health service.

“We have had real difficulty engaging with mental health managers. They have failed to attend important staff consultative committee meetings and Reasonable Workload Committee (RWC) meetings and when they have attended they have not conducted themselves in a spirit of consultation and negotiation.”

Branch president and mental health nurse Petra Smyth (pictured, in blue) said work bans were carefully targeted so as not to have an impact on clients.

“The whole point of our action is to improve the quality of the service, starting with backfilling annual leave so we have sufficient staff to keep appointments with clients,” Petra, who is also the nominated representative for community mental health nurses on the RWC, said.

She said that since the bans went into effect management had declined all requests for leave.

“They have suggested we go on annual leave one nurse at a time. That would mean we could go on annual leave about once every two and a half years, given the size of our team.”

Petra said another management suggestion was to assign the full time equivalent of one of the existing nursing staff to the job of backfilling colleagues’ annual leave.

Not only would this be inadequate to cover all nurses on the roster it would also mean they were one FTE down for case management.

She said management had made no serious attempt to recruit to a casual pool.

“They did say if we had any friends or ex-colleagues looking for casual work we should encourage them to apply, which is not really active recruitment,” Petra said.

She said failure to backfill annual leave made it much harder to provide an adequate range of service and quality of service.

“We were able to manage in the past when we were a full team. But now that we are seriously short staffed and with no backfilling of leave, we are really just patching things up and running an emergency service.”

NSWNMA Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda said Albury mental health nurses were concerned they could not maintain a quality and safe service while there was no backfilling of nurses on annual leave.

“Providing replacement nurses for annual leave has been funded since 2011, but the funding has rarely been utilised,” she said. “Over the past few months the nurses have made every reasonable attempt, through meetings and consultation, to resolve this matter internally. However, there has been no timely and effective response from management at any stage.

“That is why the nurses now feel they must take a stronger stand over the issue, through these work bans.”