New aged care award cuts pay

Union acts to defend wages and conditions

The need for aged care nurses to negotiate Enterprise Agreements with employers is now urgent, following a pay-cutting decision by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

Minimum wage rates for aged care nurses not covered by a collective agreement have been cut by up to $300 per week under a new national award drawn up by the Commission.

The Nurses Award 2010 replaced most state-based awards for the aged care sector on 1 January.

Under this new national award, different state-based pay rates are replaced by nationwide award rates. These new rates are significantly lower than rates in some former state-based awards – especially NSW and Queensland.

The national award is being phased in over five years. At the end of the phase-in period, the award pay rate for a first-year Enrolled Nurse in NSW will have dropped by $88 per week from $738 to $650. The rate for an eight-year Registered Nurse in NSW will fall by $294 per week.

NSW Nurses’ Association Assistant General Secretary Judith Kiejda slammed the new award as threatening to drive many nurses out of the aged care sector.

‘Australia faces a more than 50% increase in the number of nursing home residents by 2020. The sector is already short-staffed and this new award threatens to make the situation worse,’ she said.

‘It is now even more important and urgent for nurses to get union help to engage in collective bargaining for a better deal for their workplace.’

The Union asked the Commission to delay the introduction of the national award wage rates by two years, to allow more time to help members negotiate Enterprise Agreements.

The Commission – ironically now called Fair Work Australia – refused the Union request despite the Federal Government making a submission in support of the Union’s argument.

News reports quoted Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as promising that existing employees would not be worse off because, under new federal industrial law, no worker can be disadvantaged by the ‘award modernisation’ process.

Ms Gillard said unions could apply to the Commission for an order to maintain employees’ ‘take home pay’ at existing levels.

‘In any case, a take-home pay order is not available to new starters who could legally be put on the new lower rate if they are not protected by an Enterprise Agreement,’ Judith said.

She said the new award potentially applied to about 15,000 nurses including 10,000 in NSW.

Most ‘not for profit’ aged care facilities are covered by Enterprise Agreements, which pay above-award rates. However, a significant majority of ‘for profit’ centres pay according to the award.

Judith said the NSWNA would do everything possible to ensure members did not lose pay.

‘Under common law, no employer can legally reduce a worker’s pay without that worker’s agreement.

‘Therefore, as a first step, we advise members to respond in writing if their employer advises them that the new award has come into effect in their workplace (see box).

‘The only real protection for our members is collective bargaining for an Enterprise Agreement with guaranteed regular pay increases.’

Concern about the new award is not confined to union ranks.

Already some employers have expressed serious reservations about how the new award will impact on their payroll systems if workers doing the same job are paid different rates of pay depending on when they joined the facility.

‘Of course, it’s important to remember that employers are free to pay their employees more than the minimum award rates and the Association hopes sensible employers see the benefit in doing so,’ Judith said.

Say no to a pay cut

If you work in an aged care facility that does not have a collective agreement setting out your wages and conditions, then you are probably covered by the new national award.

Therefore, you need to take steps to ensure you do not suffer any reduction in pay or other conditions.

Your employer is not legally entitled to reduce your hourly rate of pay or your take-home pay unless you agree to a reduction. Nor can your employer unilaterally take away conditions you are contractually entitled to.

If the employer tries to cut your pay, contact the NSW Nurses’ Association immediately on 8595 1234.

If your employer sends you correspondence advising of the new award we recommend you write back saying: ‘I acknowledge that the new Nurses Award 2010 came into effect on 1 January 2010; however, I do not agree to any reduction in my hourly rate of pay or other terms and conditions of employment.’

This means the employer cannot claim that you have agreed to be paid less than what you are on now.

The best way to protect existing wages and guarantee future pay increases is for you and your fellow nurses to join the NSWNA and get the Union’s help to bargain with the employer for a better deal.