Should all frontline workers be paid extra 'pandemic pay'?

Source: Icon Sportswire

During the Delta outbreak, the Victorian government introduced a hospital surge allowance to reward staff for the risk and strain of working on the frontline. Now, doctors and nurses across the country are calling for the same recognition.

Sonia*, a doctor in a major Sydney hospital speaks to The Feed in the middle of a 12-day work week. She’s covering for two other doctors as well as doing her own job.

Outside of work hours, she avoids gathering with others in the profession, knowing what an infection could do to the team. During office hours, doctors find new places to sit far from one another to avoid potential spread.

“The system exploits our empathy and compassion. If someone is off, we feel guilty and just cover the shift,” she said. 

She told The Feed pandemic pay would not fix the problems plaguing hospitals at the moment, but would acknowledge the mental and physical cost of working on the frontline.

“We have all had to do more work without notice and without being asked,” she said, adding that a culture of not claiming overtime means extra hours often go unpaid. 

As Australia enters the third year of the pandemic, health care staff across the country describe feelings of dread, weariness, and exploitation as hospitalisations reach new heights.  

Annual leave is being cancelled to deal with staffing shortages. Rosters show 12 consecutive days of work. Double-shifts. 

Breaks are limited, staff-to-patient ratios are suffering, and long shifts in personal protective equipment (PPE) are driving workers to exhaustion, frontline workers told The Feed.

As the situation becomes more dire, physiotherapists are being called to step into nursing roles, and doctors are voicing concern as patients, admitted for non-COVID health problems, contract the virus from within the hospital.

Now, frontline workers across the country are asking for ‘pandemic pay’ as a token of recognition for the challenging time.

Frontline workers are pleading for pandemic payments

In Victoria, Hospital Surge Support payments were introduced last October by the state government after a campaign by the state's nurses union. At the time, Victoria’s hospitals were overwhelmed from the Delta outbreak with hospitalisations reaching 851 people at its peak. 

The payment introduced an additional $60 payment per shift for public hospital and Ambulance Victoria workers who were face-to-face with COVID-19 patients. Doctors, nurses and midwives treating non-COVID patients would receive $30 more for each shift. Payments are set to end in February.

Currently, Victoria is the only Australian jurisdiction to offer a payment of its kind. It’s a move other frontline workers across Australia would like to see made more widely.

Last week, a South Australian emergency nurse wrote an open letter to SA Premier Steven Marshall urging him to give frontline nurses pandemic payments for the “exhausting and relentless conditions” they are working in.

The accompanying online petition received more than 5000 signatures in less than 24 hours. 

Responding to the plea, SA Treasurer Rob Lucas said: “The only state that offers that particular payment (for hospital nurses in the pandemic) is Victoria and we’re not proposing to introduce a further scheme."

“We have just paid our nurses, from January 1, a generous 2 per cent pay rise as part of an enterprise bargaining agreement.”

During the Delta outbreak last year, the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association (NSWNMA) wrote to NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard requesting a COVID-19 allowance similar to the payment introduced in Victoria.

“Such an allowance would recognise the work nurses and midwives have done to date,” the letter, seen by The Feed said.

“Going forward this allowance will provide an incentive for nurses and midwives to continue to work in these stressful areas during this extraordinary health crisis.” 

Shaye​ Candish, the acting general secretary of the NSWNMA, said while the financial incentive would not change circumstances for workers, it would “offer some small recognition of the difficult and at times unsafe situation that these nurses and midwives are entering day in, day out.” 

“Without some attempt to incentivise this difficult work, nurses and midwives will only continue to retire early, move to other areas of the health system or change professions completely - something we cannot possibly encourage when our system is so abysmally short-staffed.”

Ms Candish said the organisation had not received a response from Mr Hazzard’s office. The letter, she said, had also been backed by thousands of NSWNMA members. 

Predictions say it will get worse before it gets better

On Tuesday, the number of COVID-19 patients in Victorian hospitals reached its highest number on record with 861 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 117 people in ICU.

In NSW numbers continue to rise with 2,186 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 170 in ICU.

NSW Health predicts the number of COVID-19 hospitalisations to at least double before the figure peaks. 

Dr Chris Moy, vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, said for some a financial incentive could be a welcomed bonus, but there are other actions that could come before this step. 

“Getting doctors and nurses to work should be voluntary, there shouldn't be any coercion," said Dr Moy. 

He said that staff want to feel supported, have adequate PPE and see "that the politicians aren't being flippant about health workers and minimising their plight". 

"They don't want to feel used and in fact relied on for their dedication or the ethical principles."

Dr Ben Veness a psychiatry registrar and founder of the advocacy group Health Care Workers Australia would also like to see improved working conditions. 

"It's a nice idea, but it doesn't really address the most important issues," he said. "Above this is better management of the risk in the workplace in the first place." 

* Name changed to protect identity

The Feed has contacted Brad Hazzard's office for comment but did not receive a comment in time for publication.