Redundancies end, farce follows – November 2009

A directive from NSW Health has put an end to voluntary redundancies in the Sydney West Area Health Service, but what’s the cost of this hasty and ill-considered plan?

A directive from the Director-General of NSW Health has put an end to the offers of voluntary redundancies to nurses in the Sydney West Area Health Service. This is a sensible and welcome response to our campaign to keep experienced nurses within the already stretched public health system.

There are lessons to be learnt from this debacle and a mess remains to be cleaned up (see p.23). The AHS has contractual arrangements with scores of nurses who have made other plans for their futures. Their positions now need to be backfilled and the public purse will be down millions of dollars. A hasty and ill-considered plan to save money has actually worsened the area’s budget.
Hopefully, all the state’s health administrators will learn a lesson from this. Losing our most experienced nurses is not an option when searching for solutions to budget shortfalls.

More work needed on night shift penalty case
The NSW Industrial Relations Commission cannot be accused of such haste or lack of consideration.

It has shelved a final decision on our night duty penalty test case pending a study and risk assessment to be carried out by NSW Health and the NSWNA.

The Commission expressed surprise and disquiet that NSW Health had not already carried out such a survey of NSW nurses. It also acknowledged the NSWNA provided strong evidence that there were medical risks arising from night shifts.

‘It is a matter of considerable concern that there has not been a risk assessment of night shift work by nurses in the public hospital system. Furthermore, the strength of the expert evidence of psychological and physiological harm that may derive from working extended periods of shift work weighs against a simple rejection of the case, at least on public interest grounds,’ it said in its judgement.

The Commission has directed NSW Health and the NSWNA to conduct a joint study and risk assessment of nurses currently in the system over the next 12 months.

The study must determine if an increase in penalty rates would lead to a change in work practices that would minimise the health risks.

While it is disappointing the Commission has postponed its decision on this case for 12 months, the window of opportunity is still open to make improvements for better night duty penalty rates.
I would like to thank the six nurses who took the witness stand on our behalf. Their evidence was a vital component of our case.

Bargaining is the only way forward in aged care
The Federal Government’s process of modernising awards has thrown up an adverse outcome for NSW nurses employed by non-government health providers (see p.21). An initial decision by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission sets the pay rates in the new nurses’ award well below the current NSW levels.

The Association is vigorously contesting this decision but it does raise a bigger issue that we will have to confront.

NSW aged care and private hospital nurses have better pay and conditions than their colleagues in other states. This is because the NSW industrial relations system, until now, has given the NSWNA the opportunity to use innovative and creative methods to achieve good outcomes as in our work value case in 2005, which resulted in a 25% pay rise over three years for aged care nurses.

The terrain on which we operate is now changing and we will have to adapt to the new circumstances. Bargaining will be paramount in achieving improvements in pay and conditions. The award will pro-vide a base level but nurses will have to organise at the workplace and exert pressure if we are to be rewarded for our hard work and professionalism. As an organisation we have been moving in this direction for several years. This latest development as the industrial relations environment evolves vindicates our preparation and highlights the need to continue this trend.

Aged care and private sector employers must bargain or face losing nurses now and in the future. You cannot successfully bargain if you are not well organised in your workplace.