Work bans get vacancies filled

A campaign by Albury community nurses to improve service delivery and cover annual leave is getting results.

Action by community mental health nurses in Albury has succeeded in easing a staff shortage with management finally agreeing to fill four vacancies.

Nurses banned a range of administrative and other tasks last September, following Murrumbidgee Local Health District management’s failure to co-operate with nurses to solve serious staffing issues, including failure to backfill annual leave despite funding being provided.

This forced nurses to cancel hundreds of client appointments and diminished the range of services and quality of patient care.

The Albury Community and Mental Health Nurses Branch of the NSWNMA lifted the work bans in stages as management acted to fill each vacancy.

Branch president Petra Smyth said filling the vacancies meant there was now enough staff to cover annual leave.

“Nurses are quite pleased with the result and feel better able to deal with the workloads. And it’s now easier for people to access leave.”

She said the work bans were carefully targeted so as not to impact on clients because “the whole point of our action was to improve the quality of the service.”

“It is quite an achievement for a small branch to be confident enough to take action. It reinforced to us that we did have a voice – something we were not confident about beforehand.

“At first we felt disempowered and didn’t believe there was much we could do. However by using the reasonable workloads process we realised we could take steps to improve the workload and patient care.”

The actions taken by the nurses prompted the Health Services Union to form a local branch and join the campaign. This meant the entire multidisciplinary community health service was united on the issue.

Petra said the campaign also encouraged new members to join the NSWNMA.

Branch secretary Margaret Traill said the NSWNMA branch had stayed united on the issue and the result was a boost for morale.

Failure to backfill annual leave is a breach of the 2011 nurses award, which says “funded / budgeted FTE (full time equivalent) must include no less than four weeks (20 days) of annual leave relief per productive FTE. Where staff are required to work shift work or weekends then no less than six weeks (30 days) should be included.”

The award adds that managers are responsible for scheduling annual leave so as to “prevent unreasonable increased workload for remaining employees arising from the taking of leave.”

Margaret said this award provision was not being implemented at Albury Community Mental Health.

“However since our action nurses are being replaced when going on leave providing that suitably qualified people are available to step in,” she said.

In a separate dispute the branch succeeded in blocking an attempt to downgrade the full time community nurse manager position by splitting the funding between a 0.6 FTE nurse manager position and a 0.4 FTE allied health manager position.

The nurse manager position had been left vacant for several months, requiring team leaders to take over nurse manager roles, leading to a loss of clinical time.

In a letter to management Margaret said the proposal would have “a significant and negative impact” on patient care, workplace health and safety, the professional responsibilities of nurses, and human resource processes.

She said a reduction in nurse manager hours would weaken many aspects of the service leading to reduced efficiency, reduced management of critical incidents and reduced clinical advocacy for patients at meetings.

Sustained pressure from the branch resulted in management agreeing to recruit a full time permanent nurse manager.

Margaret said both campaigns had definitely been worthwhile: “I would love other branches around the state to realise that if they do stick together they can get a positive outcome.

“The clear lesson from our disputes was that the push needs to come from the members.

“The Association officers were terrific support and advocates but they need clear instructions from members to act on their behalf. They were very helpful in taking our resolutions to management and negotiating on our behalf.

“If you show the Association you are serious about an issue and are prepared to take action they will support you.”