Healthcare workers demand 6.5 per cent pay hike as paramedics begin strike

Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 2023

Tens of thousands of public sector healthcare workers will demand a one-year 6.5 per cent pay bump before a looming dispute with the new Labor government is “de-escalated”, in the first major test of Premier Chris Minns’s key election commitment to overhauling wages in the state.

As paramedics and patient transport officers join forces to implement statewide 24-hour bans in a show of force by workers on Thursday, powerful Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes has written to Minns laying out six demands by which “the current dispute can be de-escalated”.

The letter, seen by the Herald, reveals the HSU is seeking a 6 per cent pay increase for its 47,000 members, as well as a 0.5 per cent superannuation bump, when the union’s current agreement expires on July 1.

While less than the most recent inflation figure of 7 per cent, the pay demand is still well above the previous government’s 3 per cent wages cap, and would likely spur other unions to seek a similar increase. Industrial agreements covering 200,000 public sector workers are due to expire at the end of June.
Hayes said the union’s demands were an offer to “resolve the dispute we currently find ourselves in”, as the government faces increased criticism for failing to move faster on its election promise to remove the controversial public sector wages cap.

He said a one-year increase of 6 per cent plus 0.5 per cent superannuation would provide a “buffer” for healthcare workers experiencing increased cost of living caused by higher inflation, mounting interest rate rises, and a legacy of low wage increases as a result of the cap.

“It would be a holding pattern in a context where you have inflation at 7 per cent, maybe another interest rate rise coming, and, concurrently, people and particularly paramedics going to Queensland, ACT and Victoria because the pay is significantly better,” Hayes told the Herald.

“If we choose to do nothing that’s fine, but we’re going to keep training up key workers and they’re going to continue to leave to where they can get a better deal.”

Before the election the NSW Parliamentary Budget Office released modelling which showed a wage increase across the entire public service of 1 per cent more than current wage growth targets of 4 per cent in 2023-24, and 3.5 per cent in subsequent years, would cost NSW $2.6 billion over three years if not offset by productivity savings.

But Hayes said he was only seeking a one-year pay deal to encourage the government to pursue health reforms he says can save it billions of dollars in revenue by cutting wastage in the system.

The six demands include pushing for a broader modernisation of HSU member awards to recognise increased professionalism among paramedics and allied health care workers, while also pursuing a promised special commission of inquiry into health spending by August 1.

“We need those awards to be modernised because you have all of these health care professionals suffering from skills creep,” he said. “Paramedics are administering treatments that aren’t recognised on their blue-collar awards because they didn’t exist when the thing was written.”

The mounting tension was sparked by the government’s decision to prioritise a change to the NSW Constitution which will ensure Sydney Water cannot be privatised, as well as legislation reforming rental policies and grants.

It has set the stage for the first major industrial action under the new government, when paramedics and patient transport officers will refuse to take anyone discharged from hospital to their home or to a residential aged care facility from 6am on Thursday.

On Wednesday Minns said he spoke to Hayes last week, while NSW Treasurer Daniel Mookhey and Health Minister Ryan Park met with him this week. Minns said negotiations between the government and unions were ongoing, defending Labor’s priorities by saying “we can do many things at the same time”.

“I’m confident of progress and a landing. I’m not able to detail when and where that will be right now, but I remain hopeful that of the 400,000 public sector workers in NSW and their representatives that we can get an agreement in relation to wages in particular and the removal of the wages cap,” Minns said.

In his letter to the premier Hayes wrote that HSU members had been “intimately involved in supporting the community over the last decade and in that time wages have fallen behind significantly with respect to other states”.

“The pandemic has also provided workforce challenges due to additional health policy and procedures, increases in resignation, limited foreign workers and health workers relocating to other states,” he wrote.