Exhausted nurses working at what they say is a dangerously under-resourced private hospital have threatened to walk off the job after their newly-appointed CEO refused what they describe as an "agreed” and "much-needed" pay rise, claiming they were already "excessively" overpaid.
Under the hospital's previous CEO, nurses at St Vincent's in Lismore — an area that remains deeply affected by 2022's "utterly devastating" east coast flooding — were offered an annual raise of 4 per cent, with 2.53 per cent to be backdated to 2022.
Although that number was lower than the 7 per cent the hospital's nurses pushed for — with the figure backed by the NSW Nurses and Midwives' Association (NSWNMA), who said it was reflective of their efforts across a number of difficult years — the new rate was understood to be on the table and ready to be accepted by the nurses.
New hospital CEO labels nurses 'excessively generously' paid
But following the arrival of the hospital's newest CEO Alan Cooper, who is understood to have returned from retirement to take on the role about four weeks ago, staff were told via email that not only would that percentage be slashed by almost half, but their salaries were also branded "excessively generous".
Lismore, in NSW's Northern Rivers, was one of the worst affected regions in the country during last year's crushing — and deadly — east coast floods. Nurses say "staff here have lost homes, cars and cattle in the floods over the past five years, and we really deserve to earn more than $35 per hour".
Cooper said that in his view it was in the nurses' best interest to accept the reduced offer, which he said was "fair financially and far better professionally".
"As you are aware we are in the process of an EBA negotiation with the NSWNMA. On my arrival this negotiation was under way and certain offers had been on the table but not accepted," Cooper's email, sent in late October, and seen by Yahoo News Australia, began.
"Since arriving three three weeks ago, I have commenced a comprehensive review of all aspects of this organisation," he continued, claiming that St Vincent's had, "for many years", paid nurses "excessively generously".
"This has resulted in a significant blowout to the cost of running the hospital and has not helped to attract nor retain staff," he claimed.
Lower pay 'better financially' and fairer', CEO claims
Citing what he argued was "three major issues within the hospital", Cooper then said "parameters need to be realigned with what is fair and reasonable" to "help our hospital return from losing money to one that is sustainable and has a future".
As a result, he explained that a "2.3 per cent wages increase was needed" — far below the original 7 per cent put forward by the nurses union — and almost half of the 4 per cent agreed on by the hospital's previous management.
"I'm sorry the original offer had to be withdrawn but I hope you can see that the wage rate offer is fair financially and far better for you professionally," the email concluded.
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on the condition of anonymity, a nurse at St Vincent's, who described the working conditions as "outrageous" and "unsafe", said that for many at the hospital, the agreed pay rise had already been budgeted into their lives and now, they feel their futures "have been taken away".
Nurses already working two jobs 'to survive'
"It's a disgrace! Most of the girls already work two jobs just to survive — it's just so horrible," the nurse said. "Public nurses get paid more now with their 7 per cent rise, we are skilled nurses too, and we're always understaffed."
It's understood many at the hospital have already "branched off to work in disability care just to survive".
"They get almost $12 more an hour doing that," the nurse explained.
Others also say they drive tens of kilometres per day just to get to work, racking up significant petrol bills, which are uncompensated.
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Yahoo has been told St Vincent's nurses are "so loyal" that staff even slept the night in the hospital to ensure patients were well cared for during flood seasons, often placing their own personal commitments behind the needs of their patients.
"We had nurses sleeping here when others couldn't make it due to flooded properties and loss of cars," the nurse recalled. "We basically had a Covid ward for months too, and I got Covid three times, and the PPE was a sh*t fight. We deserve a pay rise for that alone.
"Also — we were told a month ago that our whole ward had to take annual leave over Christmas — for a month!
"Even if we had no leave left. The girls who are struggling already really relied on that pay rise and backpay to get them over the line to cover the cost of Christmas, and not being able to work.
"We're being made to take from December 23 to January 22 off. Literally some of the staff don't have any annual leave left. So they will have zero money over Christmas now — this is on top of the fact the hospital didn't even offer Covid leave.
"We used our sick pay for that instead."
Nurses' union brands CEO's act as 'almost unprecedented'
In an email from the NSWNMA, obtained by Yahoo, the backflip from Cooper is "almost unheard of" in the industry.
"Instead of money to recognise and reward your work, as well as to deliver cost of living relief, new CEO Alan from Queensland believes that a program of 'expanded professional development' will be better for you," NSWNMA's General Secretary Shaye Candish said.
"It is almost unheard of for an employer to lower a previously tabled pay offer, and is not what members expect from someone acting in good faith. It's time to stand together and send a strong message that this is NOT good enough."
Yahoo News Australia has sought comment from both Cooper and the hospital, without success.
Reflecting the claims made by St Vincent's staff, recent data has revealed three-quarters of nurses working in primary health care feel stressed and exhausted at work, with one in four planning to leave their job within two to five years.
A 2022 survey by the Australian Primary Healthcare Nurses Association (APNA) found two-thirds of primary healthcare nurses were working overtime, and two-thirds said they had an excessive workload.
One in four planned to leave within the next two to five years, and one in 10 planned to find another job within the next 12 months.
"People can't make ends meet, they don't know what to do, what we're asking for isn't 'excessive' — it's fair pay for hard work," the St Vincent's nurse said. "We are crushed by this news and we have no idea how we're going to make ends meet".
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