Pay rise for Mercy nurses

"Our long campaign was well worth it."
“Our long campaign was well worth it.”

Union membership pays off for staff at two nursing homes in the state’s southwest.

Mercy Health aged care nurses at Albury and Young have won pay increases of up to 15% over the next two years, under their first union-negotiated workplace agreement.

Enrolled Nurses and Registered Nurses will receive an immediate 7% increase followed by 4% on July 1, 2013 and another 4% on July 1, 2014. Assistants in nursing will receive 4% now plus two installments of 3%.

The agreement also makes the two nursing homes eligible for extra funding under the federal government’s new Workforce Supplement for aged care services. That could mean further pay increases of up to 2% by July next year.

“We were really excited when Mercy Health accepted our claim,” Maryanne Dean, branch delegate for the NSWNMA at Mercy Place Albury, said. “Everyone at work was just thrilled.”

“Our long campaign was well worth it. The vast majority of nurses here are very happy,” said Angela Scott, who was Association branch secretary at Mercy Place Mount St. Joseph’s in Young, during negotiations for the workplace agreement.

Owned by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, Mercy Health operates 10 residential aged care facilities in Victoria and two in New South Wales – the 120-bed Albury home and the 65-bed facility at Young.

Victorian nurses working for Mercy were covered by workplace agreements but the NSW nurses were employed under the Nurses Award and received significantly less than union-negotiated agreements applying at nearby nursing homes.

Lack of a workplace agreement also disqualified the two facilities from receiving extra federal funds under the Workforce Supplement.

Union branches at Albury and Young began negotiating to move from the award to workplace agreements in June 2010. Branch meetings overwhelmingly rejected management’s first offer of 6.5% over three installments (1.5%, 2.5% and 2.5%) with more than 100 nurses signing postcards asking Mercy Health for a fair pay rise.

Late in 2012 the union put a counter-claim of 7%, 4% and 4% for ENs and RNs and 4%, 3% and 3% for AiNs. It took management 72 days to reply with a repeat of their original 6.5% offer and a threat to cut staffing if they were forced to meet any higher increase.

Nurses at Young sought community support for their claim by holding a roadside rally near the nursing home and putting leaflets into letterboxes. They got local media coverage as did Albury nurses who held similar actions.

“Our leaflets explained the massive wage gap between our facility and others in the region. We explained we needed to be brought up to a comparable rate to other facilities so we could retain and attract good staff,” Angela Scott said.

Maryanne Dean said members of the public, including relatives of residents at the Albury facility, were very supportive. Some telephoned the head office of Mercy Health to lobby for the nurses.

Union branches decided to seek approval from Fair Work Commission (FWC) to take protected industrial action as part of the bargaining process. FWC authorised workplace ballots, conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, which resulted in an overwhelming “Yes” vote to take action.

Branches decided that action could include refusing to fill out forms relating to the aged care funding instrument, refusing to work more than contracted hours, a ban on overtime, distributing leaflets to residents and visitors to the facilities, wearing badges at work and a series of four, eight and 12-hour work stoppages.

“We wanted to try t-shirts, badges and flyers first,” Maryanne said. “Work stoppages would have been the last resort.”

In the end industrial action was not needed, as Mercy Health agreed to the union’s wages counter-claim.

Both branches voted to accept the pay deal and all staff will vote on the final agreement soon.

Supplement gets results

Assistant General Secretary of the NSWNMA Judith Kiejda said the result of enterprise bargaining at Mercy Health showed how the Workforce Supplement could help improve aged care wages and working conditions across New South Wales.

Judith said facilities that sign up to the federal Workforce Supplement will be eligible to receive funding to pay an extra 1% increase to staff in July 2013 and another 1% rise in July 2014.

She said the Association had already helped to negotiate workplace agreements with more than 80% of aged care facilities in NSW.

“Those facilities without current agreements should quickly finalise agreements that comply with the Supplement so their nurses can receive the benefit of this important federal government initiative.”