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2005-12-08 16:35:10

Nurses Walk Out on Patients

Forget the Florence Nightingale pledge as nurses stage a massive sickout that may be illegal under the Industrial Relations Act.

Members of the Bahamas Nurses Union (BNU) staged a massive sickout yesterday, forcing the public health system to work on a fraction of its staff.

The decision to stage the sickout came at an emergency meeting held Tuesday night and follows the break down of contract negotiations between the union and the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA).

But the authority has warned that the sickout may be illegal under the Industrial Relations Act, as it relates to essential services workers.

PHA also said it was disappointed that the union had chosen to take industrial action, given that it had accepted the wage package to be incorporated into the five-year industrial agreement to facilitate a $900 lump-sum payment to nurses by December 19.

Nurses are pushing for medical insurance coverage and have rejected the PHA's offer of a 10 percent salary increase over a five-year period, citing that the proposal is "substandard" and amounts to no increase at all, when the rate of inflation is taken into account.

"From the union's inception we were asking for insurance," BNU president Cleola Hamilton told The Bahama Journal yesterday. "In the negotiations with PHA they cannot tell us whether we are going to have insurance or not, they are telling us the same thing that they told us five years ago - they are conducting a study and from that study they will see if they can have insurance.

"The government is saying that nursing is an essential service, and essential servants are insured under the Bahamas government - police and defence force officers - but they refuse to insure nurses."

Mrs. Hamilton also strongly denied the authority's claim that the union had agreed to the wage package, emphasising that the union had not signed anything relating to the proposed agreement.

Although Mrs. Hamilton could not say exactly how many nurses took part in Wednesday's sickout, she said that the decision to stage the sick-out received the general support of more than 300 nurses in New Providence, and a number of nurses from Grand Bahama and the Family Islands.

Mrs. Hamilton said that while she is concerned about how the sickout might affect the public healthcare system, she said that the government should also be concerned.

"We are sick and tired of the way nurses are treated in this country. We are treated as sub-employees, whether this is being done because nursing is predominately female I don't know, but we are treated as sub-employees in the government," she said.

Mrs. Hamilton said that the union would do whatever necessary in its push for medical insurance and a satisfactory salary increase.

But the Public Hospitals Authority has assured the public that all basic services, including emergencies, would continue.

Yesterday's sick-out also came on the day that Acting Governor General Paul Adderely made the traditional Christmas visit to the Princess Margaret Hospital.

On Wednesday, the Princess Margaret Hospital was reportedly being staffed by Filipino nurses and nursing officers, along with other nurses who have refused to take part in the industrial action.

The less serious cases of the Accident and Emergency section had to be referred to the General Practitioners Clinic of the hospital, which was fully staffed, and other clinics.

A statement released by the PHA yesterday outlined the details of the negotiations, which started in June 2005 and stalled on Monday, December 5, when a proposed agreement on wages was made.

The release indicated that on Tuesday, December 6, the BNU tabled their acceptance of the agreed wage package to be incorporated in the five-year industrial agreement to facilitate a $900 lump-sum payment to nurses by December 19.

The five-year agreed wage, according to the PHA, included a lump sum payment of $900 in the first year, July 1 - December 2005, and a $100 increase per month to the base wages, January 1 - June 30, 2006, representing a three to six percent wage increase.

In year two, all nurses would receive a four percent general increase on base wages, July 1, 2006 - June 2007.

And in year four, all nurses would receive a three percent increase on base wages, July 2008 - June 2009.

There would be no additional increases in years three and five.

The PHA also noted that for each year of the agreement, all nurses would be eligible to receive their annual increments, which range between $600 and $700, but Mrs. Hamilton pointed out that some nurses have already received the maximum number of increments.

"In light of the fact that the next agreed negotiation is scheduled for Thursday, December 15, the PHA is disappointed that the BNU has withdrawn from this agreement and has chosen to take industrial action," according to the release.

The PHA said that the action is a breach of the ground rules agreed to by both parties at the start of these negotiations, but added that despite the industrial action, its offer to the union remains on the table.

One of the public clinics affected by Wednesday's sickout was the Fleming Street Clinic. When The Bahama Journal visited the facility yesterday morning, the nurses' station was in darkness and patients were told to return that afternoon.

The Public Hospitals Authority said that it would address the union's claims in a press conference scheduled for 10am today.

By: Erica Wells, The Bahama Journal

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