Perth's public hospitals are dangerously short of nurses, with overworked staff given coffee vouchers instead of extra help, according to the Australian Nursing Federation.
The union says it is getting complaints about cash-strapped hospitals not employing agency staff to fill gaps when nurses are sick or on holidays.
It comes amid claims by parents who say they are stepping in as "unpaid nurses" at Princess Margaret Hospital to care for their seriously ill children.
ANF State secretary Mark Olson said hundreds of nurses, including graduates, were struggling to get work.
"We are used to seeing this type of shortage in the final week or two of the financial year but it's nothing short of a disaster to see it at the beginning of the financial year," he said.
Mr Olson said nurses at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital were being given coffee vouchers instead of extra staff.
"Managers have been given a directive to cut costs and staffing regardless of the consequences," he said. "But the managers should not be put in a position where they cannot call for agency staff to fill gaps."
Several parents of children who have tracheostomies, or surgically inserted tubes in the throat to help them breathe, spoke out yesterday about what they believe is a dangerous and worsening lack of nurses.
Nicole Walker, whose nine-year-old daughter Kayla has cerebral palsy and a tracheostomy, said PMH had postponed Kayla's surgery this week because of a lack of staffed beds.
The family had travelled from Geraldton for the operation scheduled for two days ago, only to be told it could not go ahead.
The surgery has been rescheduled for tomorrow.
"They say the job freeze that was in place did not affect front-line staff but we've seen things go downhill in terms of the number of nurses and those working double shifts," Ms Walker said.
The WA Health Department said there was no policy restricting the use of agency staff and PMH denied there was a staff shortage. A hospital spokes- woman said that during times of high demand, nurses were asked to work extra shifts and overtime but it was voluntary and monitored for safety.
A SCGH spokeswoman said the hospital occasionally provided staff with coffee vouchers as a token of appreciation.