Work bans fast track recruitment

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Operating theatre nurses imposed work bans after their local health district failed to recruit nurses it had already received funding for.

Bans on non-nursing theatre duties at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital (JHH) quickly got the dispute before the NSW Industrial Commission.

The Commission ordered the Hunter New England Local Health District to fast track recruitment of nurses and co-operate with the NSWNMA to solve staffing issues.

Commission Deputy President Rod Harrison also ordered management to consult with theatre staff and the NSWNMA about the daily theatre workload every morning, while the parties negotiated an escalation plan for the longer term.

JHH is one of the state’s biggest hospitals with the only trauma centre in New South Wales outside of Sydney.

NSWNMA branch delegate at the hospital, David Pfanner, said management was moving faster to recruit staff while giving part-timers more hours, thereby reducing the need for overtime.

“The branch held a secret ballot which unanimously supported the bans – and they got the desired result,” said David, a theatre nurse.

“The staff are really happy with the outcome – people are saying the union has done a fantastic job.”

David said the dispute had been brewing since last year but got worse with the LHD’s failure to recruit to seven FTE (full time equivalent) positions by March 31 as it was funded to do.

David raised the failure to fill the funded positions with Health Minister Jillian Skinner when she addressed the NSWNMA annual conference on August 9. Mrs Skinner said she new nothing about it and would investigate.

It seemed the money – more than $700,000 – was held up at LHD level.

“The district was given the money but the hospital say they never received it. We do know it wasn’t spent on more nurses as was supposed to happen,” David said.

The NSWNMA branch passed a resolution on August 14 demanding fast recruitment of the seven FTE positions, which should have been filled at least five months earlier, and use of agency nurses to backfill in the meantime.

Meanwhile management disputed the branch’s staffing calculations for the operating theatre nursing profile. Management and the branch disagreed over the number of nurses needed to staff theatres according to ACORN (Australian College of Operating Room Nurses) standards.

On August 23 the branch voted for work bans due to continued reliance on excessive overtime, delays in recruiting funded positions, management’s refusal to use agency staff and confusion about the nursing profile.

The bans led the LHD to invoke the disputes clause of the award, meaning industrial action was suspended while the dispute went to the Industrial Commission.

The Commission’s orders included daily consultation between management and the union over staff numbers needed to manage the theatre list.

“Management didn’t like the idea of having to consult with the union every day but with the Commission involved they don’t have much choice,” David said.

“Both management and us are now accountable to an outside arbiter which is good.”

David said a Union-Specific Consultative Committee involving the NSWNMA, nurse delegates from John Hunter and the Royal Newcastle Centre, and LHD and hospital managements, was now meeting weekly to negotiate a long-term staffing solution.

David said a major task of the consultative committee was to oversee the development of an escalation plan “so we are not constantly scrambling to find enough staff to handle the daily theatre list.”

Meanwhile the NSWNMA is seeking to commission an external review of the staffing profile. However JHH management says it reserves the right to reject any request to carry out an external review and will not be bound by its findings.