Babies still don’t count when it comes to NSW Health staff-to-patient ratio calculations, striking health union workers across the region said on Thursday.
Health union reps in both Ballina and Byron told The Echo a nurse in NSW could be fully occupied with a patient that wasn’t included in official staff-to-patient tallies because it was a baby and only mothers were counted.
The same omission applied whether a birth resulted in one or more babies, staff said.
Nurses and supporters across the state striked and rallied on Thursday after prolonged failure from the government to support staff-to-patient ratio quotas.
NSW border regions losing health workers to other states
NSW is one of the only Australian states without ratio quotas and staff said hospital systems in the state’s border regions were particularly vulnerable to an exodus of nurses attracted to better pay and conditions interstate.
NSWNMA Ballina Hospital Branch Secretary Suzie Melchior said registered nurses with five years’ worth of working experience behind them were entitled to nearly an extra $300 per fortnight in QLD compared to NSW.
She said many nurses in the northern border region worked half their hours at the privately-run John Flynn hospital in Queensland thanks to a more supportive healthcare system over the border.
Around 300 nurses and supporters took part in the industrial action on the Northern Rivers, with a constant procession of honking cars outside the Byron Central Hospital, even after being stuck in a traffic jam for up to twenty minutes earlier on Ewingsdale Road.
The same support was described in Ballina, with Ms Melchior reporting a crowd of around thirty ‘plus four babies’.
A ‘broken’ health system, says Ballina union rep
Ms Melchior said she felt like the community backed the union and understood what they were asking for ‘because we want safer care for our customers’.
‘The system is so broken,’ Ms Melchior said, ‘people are being discharged too soon and bouncing back into the hospital’.
Some of the ratio targets nurses were calling for included 1:1 in intensive care, 1:2 in neo-natal wards and 1:3 in emergency departments.
Ms Melchior said of around 300 nurses working at the Ballina Hospital, 115 were union members and supportive of the strike.
Local nurses caught in housing crisis
Housing was still an issue for healthcare workers in Ballina, Ms Melchior said, with people applying for and being told they had jobs in Ballina unable to find suitable accommodation either for themselves as individuals or as families.
‘To buy here you need significant assets behind you,’ Ms Melchior said, ‘you have to pay close to $900k for a three-bedroom home on decent block’.
‘That’s unattainable for a nurse on a typical NSW government wage,’ she said.
Back in Byron, NSW Nurses and Midwives Byron Central Hospital branch executive and union executive councillor Liz McCall said very few of the local nurses lived in the Byron Shire and had to drive often treacherous journeys to work.
Ms McCall said staff morale at the Byron hospital was low thanks mainly to staffing shortages and a lack of ratio quotas.
Staff were exhausted and working overtime, sometimes unpaid, Ms McCall said, yet still receiving constant texts calling for shifts to be filled.
Doing it for the love doesn’t pay the bills in Byron
Ms McCall agreed with the likes of Australian Council of Trade Unions Chief Sally McManus on the overrepresentation of women in so-called ‘caring’ professions such as nursing.
The union rep said nursing was still widely seen as a vocation rather than a profession.
‘But that’s such an antiquated view now,’ Ms McCall said, ‘nurses are so highly educated and qualified, it’s ludicrous to think they just do it for the love of it, that doesn’t pay the bills, especially not here in Byron’.
The Northern NSW Local Health District has been contacted for comment.