Nurses choosing better-paid shifts at vaccination hubs adding to crisis in Australian public hospitals

Exhausted nurses are opting to take shifts in vaccination hubs instead of emergency departments and GP surgeries because they are paid more to deliver vaccinations and can also obtain much-needed respite from overcrowded public hospitals and clinics.

A senior agency nurse working in a vaccination hub told Guardian Australia: “I’ve never been paid as much as I’m being paid to work in the vaccination hub.”

“It’s paid incredibly well,” she said.

“I’m earning at least double what I would be as a nurse in a GP surgery, and let me tell you some of the conditions were absolutely horrendous, and it’s a really hard, badly paid job. I’ve also spoken to some of the nurses working in the hub who work in emergency departments and they’ve just had enough. Here in the hub, some days it can be really boring, slow and tedious, but it’s well paid, you at least get what you should be getting and more than working in a hospital.”

An emergency physician at a major Melbourne hospital said nurses choosing to do shifts in hubs could exacerbate overcrowding and capacity constraints plaguing the public hospital system.

“I have certainly had friends say they were vaccinated by an ED [emergency department] or ICU nurse,” he said. “My hospital frequently runs at 30 to 40 nurses below usual, which means more than a hundred beds are idle.

“The patients waiting for those beds are in ED where there are also up to 10 nurses less than usual and so also beds that can’t be used to see new patients.”

He said nurses must be better supported to work in hospitals and particularly in emergency departments. “The difference in pay rates between vaccination hubs and emergency needs to be closed because there’s a financial incentive not to work in the emergency department if you can get more money elsewhere,” he said.

“There needs to be more support for people who are willing to do the work within emergency to make it less stressful.”

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A nurse working in Victoria said hospitals were “severely” short-staffed and some permanent staff were even considering going casual for better pay.

“Agency staff are heading to vaccine hubs,” she said.

“It’s just related to the casual workforce, as permanent staff are still contracted to their units. It has a significant impact, as we can’t get patients treated and admitted due to short staffing as the regular avenues for filling those gaps aren’t available because those nurses are going where the conditions are better.

“Permanent staff are considering going casual in order to work in vaccine hubs because the pay is much better than regular ward nursing pay. Conditions in hospitals aren’t very good and that’s what’s really disappointing. When opportunities become available in environments with good conditions, that’s where the workforce goes.”

According to job advertisements for vaccination hub nurses, they can expect to receive $47 to $55 an hour, plus penalty rates.

Another nurse said the issue was particularly prevalent in Victoria where nurses had worked more overtime than usual through the second wave of Covid in 2020. They had been inundated with extremely unwell patients from nursing homes leaving them exhausted.

A professor with the University of Sydney’s Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery said nurses took on “huge levels of responsibility”.

“It’s very hard work and they’re not paid enough,” she said. Talk throughout the pandemic of nurses being “angels” and “saints” had not helped, the professor said, because there was a notion that angels and saints were happy to work for little reward out of the goodness of their hearts.

“You don’t have to pay angels and saints well,” she said.

“Despite all of the expertise and hard work of nurses, they lack power in the health system. We need to get beyond that angel and saint terminology to recognise that these are highly intelligent, highly trained, highly qualified professionals who are working extremely hard. And they should be paid sufficiently for that.”

Hundreds of Sydney nurses and midwives went on strike last week over a dispute with the New South Wales government over pay and conditions.

“Members have described critical staffing shortages across their emergency departments, intensive care units, mental health units and maternity services,” the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association general secretary, Brett Holmes, said at the time.

“These nurses and midwives are at breaking point. We need mandated nurse-to-patient ratios in our hospitals just like they have in Queensland and Victoria.”