Tough talks build a base for the future

A nurse and a midwife who were on the Ramsay bargaining committee speak to The Lamp about the year-long negotiations with the company.

Staffing is a big issue

Helen Vincent is a midwife and works for Ramsay in both the maternity suite and a post-natal ward. She said staffing was a big issue for her during the talks.

“As midwives in delivery suites we miss out on meal breaks altogether because there is no one to give us a meal break. There are no supernumeraries who can take over so you can get away and have half an hour.

“It is very busy with mothers with caesarean sections, babies with problems that we have to monitor. Also just helping with breastfeeding and the usual baby stuff. We just feel there is too much work and it is hard to manage in a civilised way.”

Helen says the delivery suites have been “frantically busy” lately.

“We are staffed for patient numbers of 18 women and we’ve had 30 and 32 over September and October. We’ve spilled all the way down to gynaecology and we’ve just occupied their beds and their patients have had to go elsewhere in the hospital.”

Helen says Ramsay seemed to take a hardline position on staffing from the beginning of the negotiations.

“I wouldn’t say they don’t care about us, but either they didn’t believe what we said about staffing or they really have a bottom-line philosophy where they’re not going to give an inch regardless of how burnt out people get or how tired they are on the shifts that they do.”

Even though Ramsay wouldn’t agree to ratios, Helen believes there were still important wins in the agreement.

“I’m really happy that those nurses having babies will have another week’s maternity leave. That makes a difference to pregnant midwives. That’s good. I think the missed meal break after 6 hours – being able to claim that makes a difference. Also the new criteria for in-charge of hospital without a patient load. That is moving forward as well. But in the future, I’d certainly like to see more reasonable workloads.”

Helen says the issue of ratios will not go away for Ramsay.

“I know the Labor opposition has said they will make staffing ratios mandatory in all public hospitals in NSW. That would put a lot of pressure on Ramsay because nursing staff and midwives do compare.

“I think if (Labor introduced new ratios in public hospitals) many midwives would think: ‘If I go to a public hospital to work I’ve got less women, I’ve got less pressure, I can sit with them longer and give better care and I’m getting the same money. Why would I bother working my guts out here’.”

Things have changed

Kerrie Harrington works in theatres. She has worked at Ramsay in two stints – once for five years and now for six years.

“I’ve noticed a big change in those two time periods with staffing levels within the hospital. I just feel nurses are not being given the opportunity to provide the quality care that they want to.

“Every nurse and midwife on the bargaining committee had terrifying stories to tell about staffing levels: never having meal breaks, working overtime, running the whole shift trying to provide care to mothers and babies safely and going home at the end of it worried about their registration because there were not enough  midwives to provide safe care.

“In some of the rural hospitals there would be one nurse on and if they needed an RN to come and check drugs or provide back up, it wouldn’t be there or there would be delays.”

Kerrie says these staffing examples from nurses had an impact during the negotiations.

“A lot of people on the company side of the negotiating committee were not directly involved in patient care so I think it was quite confronting when we would tell why we felt so strongly about these things we wanted in the agreement. We would be talking about patients. It was quite emotional sometimes.

“We were not talking about one facility or two. We had a good range of rural, metropolitan, large and small facilities and I think it was the sheer number of staffing examples we gave them that allowed us to draw out some of the concessions they did not really want to give.”

Kerrie says the agreement about the use of specials was significant.

“What we won is that specials will not come out of the regular staffing. There will be an additional staff member. So that is one way of alleviating the poor nurse-to-patient ratio. It’s a small step towards mandated ratios.”

Kerrie says the bargaining committee pushed hard for the adoption of ACORN standards, in theatres “so we can be comfortably looking after these acute patients with the knowledge that staffing levels are adequate to meet the patients’ needs”.

“We got a mention of ACORN standards but they have not committed to adhering to the standards. Adhering to the standards still remains our goal.”

Kerrie  says participating in the bargaining gave her “new insights” into issues at other Ramsay facilities. “I loved meeting and collaborating with nurses from other facilities.”

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