Sick leave controversy

Westmead Hospital in the news over failure to replace absent staff.

NSW Nurses’ Association members at Westmead Hospital are keeping a close eye on staff levels after controversy over non-replacement of staff on sick leave.

In an apparent change of hospital policy, nurses on some wards who called in sick were not replaced, while other wards were told that staff absences due to illness or other reasons could no longer be covered from the casual pool or agencies. Replacements would have to be sourced internally from staff on duty elsewhere in the hospital – if available.

The issue hit the headlines when an unknown source leaked a memo from a nurse unit manager (NUM) stating that, due to a Ministry of Health directive, the first nurse to take sick leave on a morning or afternoon shift would not be replaced. Only when a second nurse on the same ward and shift notified the hospital of their absence would a replacement be allowed, the memo said, adding that night shifts were exempt from the directive.

Westmead’s Director of Nursing (DON) said no such written directive had been issued. However, sources indicate there was some discussion of the matter at a NUM’s meeting. Later, the memo was leaked to the Daily Telegraph prompting a denial from NSW Health Minister, Jillian Skinner.

NSWNA branch president at the hospital, Daniel O’Flynn, said the leaking of the memo was “unfortunate” because it embarrassed the NUM and strained the branch’s relationship with the DON.

“The branch was already talking to the DON about sick leave issues before the memo was leaked,” Daniel said. “Our talks with the DON had been endorsed by two branch meetings, each attended by over 100 nurses.

“The branch executives have set up fortnightly meetings with the DON in order that all parties are aware of current and ongoing issues. It is important that all parties work towards harmonious solutions.”

Daniel said failure to replace absent staff would compromise patient safety, “but so far, there has been a promising outcome to the problem.

“The reports we are getting from the ward NUMs indicate that, at present, all notified staff absences are being replaced. The only exception that we are aware of is those nurses who call in sick at say, 6.30am for the 7am shift. In these circumstances wards will cover the absence until a replacement is found.”

Daniel said the branch was continuing to monitor the situation and collect data that could be presented to the Reasonable Workload Committee.

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Pictured top: Barbara Goodwin NSWNA Westmead Branch Secretary (Centre) with RNs (L-R) Lesley Trajano, Sharon Marqueta, Naomi Dry, Daryl Parker, Alison Van Hees and Arvin Ayala.