Strong case for night penalties

The NSW Nurses’ Association wrapped up its case for higher night duty penalty rates before a four-member Full Bench of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission in Sydney last month.

The Commission may take some months to decide whether nurses will get more money for working at night.

During eight days of evidence and argument, union advocates and witnesses laid out a strong case for an increase.

The current night penalty rate of 15% has not risen for 34 years and a lot more evidence now exists on the impact of night work.

The NSWNA argued that 15% is not fair compensation for the social, domestic and health disadvantages suffered by nurses working mandatory night shifts.

The rate is way behind that paid in other states, where rates range from 19.5% (Queensland) to 35% (Western Australia).

Six experienced nurses representing a range of nursing fields at both city and country hospitals took to the stand for the union: Karen Featon, RN of Campbelltown Hospital’s emergency department; Donna Garland, Maternity Unit Manager at Bankstown Hospital’s birthing unit; Gail Hanger, Nursing Unit Manager at Bowral Hospital’s high dependency unit; Grant Isedale, NM at Campbelltown’s ED; Diane McCarthy, NUM of the aged care rehabilitation unit at Prince of Wales Hospital and Deborah Ponig, RN of Bowral’s paediatric unit.

‘The NSWNA wishes to thank and congratulate these witnesses who, by agreeing to provide valuable testimony, helped us present the strongest possible case that all nurses deserve greater compensation for the proven disadvantages of night shift work,’ said General Secretary Brett Holmes.

Two university academics provided expert testimony on the confirmed ill effects of night work.

Professor Ron Grunstein of Sydney’s Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, a leading sleep research organisation, said night work increased the risk of developing breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders and reproductive health problems.

Associate Professor Shantha Rajaratnam of the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine at Melbourne’s Monash University presented evidence that non-standard work hours are associated with:

  • Negative psychological symptoms, including some related to negative cardiovascular and endocrine outcomes and higher frequency of medically certified sickness absences from work;
  • Increased disruption to marital relationships and increased probability of separation or divorce
  • Conflict between work and non-work life with reduced time available for social and leisure activities with family and friends, including reduced contact time with children;
  • Negative impact on children, with reports of higher probability of emotional or behavioural difficulties, poor outcomes for cognitive development, and elevated body mass index.

NSW Health and Treasury totally opposed the union’s case and cried poor. A Treasury witness, Mr Peter Horn, senior director in the fiscal strategy branch said: ‘The position of my organisation, Treasury, is that there is no funding available.’

Public support for nurses’ pay claim

A witty and supportive NSW citizen, Richard Goodwin, made a sensible suggestion in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, following the start of the NSWNA’s hearing for increased night penalty rates before the Industrial Relations Committee.

Richard said the NSWNA should ask for the hearing to take place between ‘10pm and 7am, over a period of at least a week, with all commission staff to continue their normal responsibilities during the non-sitting period’.

Richard suggested that getting increased penalty rates would then be a foregone conclusion, and he’s probably right. But the NSWNA is happy arguing its case according to industrial fairness and the best possible scientific evidence. Thanks anyway, Richard!