NSW paramedics' pay dispute has led to a threat that poses 'significant risk to the safety'. How did it get to this?

  • Published December 13, 2023
  • Industries

ABC News, 14 December 2023

About a third of NSW paramedics are holding out on renewing their professional registration, in a threat the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) heard "poses a significant risk to the safety of the public".

It is part of an ongoing dispute between the Health Services Union (HSU) and the NSW government, over a pay structure the union claims is seeing hundreds of paramedics leave the profession to other states.

The dispute is now before the IRC, with just 20 days remaining until the authority of 2,000 paramedics to work will expire.

After negotiations soured last week, Premier Chris Minns has stepped in at the 11th hour, and is being urged to come up with a number paramedics will accept.

A noticeably bleary-eyed Health Minister Ryan Park addressed media on Tuesday, saying round-the-clock negotiations were progressing, and a resolution was "not too far off".

Why are paramedics arguing about wages?

The Minns government came to power promising to boost the pay of front-line workers by abolishing the former government's wage cap, which limited public sector pay increases to 3 per cent per year.

Seizing their opportunity, unions representing nurses, teachers and paramedics have fought hard for big pay increases, but have come up against some push back from a cash-strapped government.

Earlier this year, the HSU rejected the government's standard offer of a 4 per cent wage rise.

Instead, it has asked for a 20 per cent increase on base salaries for paramedics.

It seems like a big jump, but HSU secretary Gerard Hayes said that would make NSW paramedics paid the same as their Queensland colleagues.

"The paramedics in every regional and metro station do not want to leave, but they cannot afford to stay," he said.

An HSU survey of 1,200 paramedics found 46 per cent were "seriously considering" leaving the service in the next six months.

Less than 5 per cent said they were not considering leaving.

Negotiations have dragged on for 18 months, but the looming threat of a major shortage of staff from January 1 has lit a fire under negotiators.

What is the government offering?

The government and the HSU were at odds about what is being offered.

The government said it was offering an average 19.6 per cent increase on base salaries.

For first-year paramedics, there would be an 11.4 per cent increase on their $75,000 a year base.

It said sixth year paramedics would see a 25.8 per cent increase.

But the HSU disputes those figures, and argues the government is actually offering those increases on top of take home pay, which includes overtime and penalties.

Mr Hayes has repeatedly said he would not accept any less than a 20 per cent increase on base pay.

The two parties have been at a stalemate over this offer for weeks, resulting in an application to the IRC in an attempt to sort it out before paramedics's registrations expire.

What does the Industrial Relations Commission say?

On Monday, the HSU asked the IRC to make a ruling on whether the decision to boycott registrations is considered industrial action.

If it is, the commission could use its power to force the HSU to stop encouraging the boycott.

A second hearing scheduled for Tuesday afternoon was postponed, with both the HSU and a spokesman for the health minister confirming talks outside the commission were progressing well.

Commissioner Janet McDonald told the hearing on Monday there was no argument that a boycott would be dangerous.

"It obviously poses a significant risk to the safety of the public," she said.

The parties are free to come to an agreement without the commission's intervention.

What if there is no deal by January 1?

From December 2018, NSW paramedics have been required to register with their professional body the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to be lawfully allowed to perform lifesaving treatment in an emergency call-out.

Part of the union's argument for higher wages, is that while paramedics must reach a certain level of training to be qualified with AHPRA, their wages have not increased to reflect that.

Registration is due by December 1, and lapses by January 1 if not renewed.

The government said about a third of NSW paramedics had not re-registered, which could mean a major shortage of paramedics come New Year's Day.

Mr Minns told ABC Radio this week the situation was dire if the dispute could not be resolved.

"If registrations don't go ahead for paramedics in New South Wales, then triple-0 on the first of January will collapse," he said.