How penalty rates will affect us: employees

Most pharmacists report feeling “disrespected as health professionals” by the recent cuts, with a full third saying they have decided to leave the profession due to the decision

According to AJP’s poll, 66% of pharmacists say the Fair Work Commission’s decision last week to reduce penalty rates makes them “feel disrespected as a health professional”.

“Nowhere else in healthcare do you see employer groups fighting to cut the pay of their staff. But that’s exactly what the Guild have done here,” says Matt Harris, National Campaign Manager for Professional Pharmacists Australia (PPA).

“Pharmacists are angry about the Guild’s actions. You can’t say one thing to the government – that pharmacists are vital – and then tell your workforce they are not that important, and here’s a pay cut.”

A further 65% report that wages are not high enough and the next move should be the raising of the award.

Forty-one percent say now that penalty rates will be this low, they will no longer work on weekends.

And nearly a third of pharmacists (32%) say that due to the cuts, they have decided to “leave the profession”.

The full results of the AJP poll at the time of writing are as follows:

  1. The decision makes me feel disrespected as a health professional (291 votes)
  2. The wages are not high enough, they need to raise the base rate (287 votes)
  3. I won’t work weekends if the penalty rates are this low (180 votes)
  4. Due to the cuts, I have decided to leave the profession (142 votes)
  5. I won’t be able to make enough money to support myself/my family (131 votes)
  6. I will now be working longer hours for the same amount of pay/less pay (107 votes)
  7. I’m happy that my place of employment can now afford to open longer each week and employ more staff (19 votes)

“The results confirm the conversations we’ve been having with hundreds of pharmacists in the past week, that there’s strong support for our campaign to lift pharmacists’ base rates in the Award,” says Harris.

“Even when they are paid above the award, pharmacists understand the importance of a decent minimum underpinning their pay.”

The PPA currently has a case before the Fair Work Commission to lift award rates, and Harris says the union will be “pushing hard” to get a result.

“Employee pharmacist rates were last assessed in the mid-90s by the Fair Work Commission, and there’s been no consideration of the value of the work of these pharmacists since then,” Harris says.

“We believe that there’s been significant change in the profession since that time, and now the Fair Work Commission should reconsider the work value of those pharmacists.”

PPA is seeking an increase of up to 30% in award wages.

Harris adds that the Pharmacy Guild of Australia should be supporting this increase, which many AJP readers have suggested is part of their overall strategy.

“If adjusting the Sunday penalty rates was the first step to adjusting the normal pharmacist rate, the Guild now needs to move to adjust the base pharmacist rate upwards,” one reader commented.

“The low-ness of the pharmacist base rate is hurting employee pharmacists, and owners alike. (The latter via low PBS payments, based on a low pharmacist rate, at which it is difficult to find a pharmacist) Let’s up the award to something realistic, and professional. We’ll all benefit. And the bulk of owners like myself, I believe, are already paying something more realistic anyway. It’s the old story – you get what you pay for.”

Another says: “My understanding of the guild position (which may be incorrect) was that they weren’t able to support an increase in the base rate until penalties had been addressed.

“The logic being that an increase of $10hr base rate leads to a $20-25/hr increase on a Sunday/Public Holiday making it uneconomic to open. Hence a decrease in the Sunday/Public Holiday penalty rate makes an increase to the base rate more viable and likely, and hopefully everyone is better off (except CWH of course).”

Adds a third: “Yep, thats correct and has been the guilds position all along. Better to do something to lift the base rate in time. I hope everyone gives credit where its due when that happens.”

The AJP has contacted the Guild regarding the raising base rates.

A Guild spokesperson responded that award rates are a “separate matter” to penalty rates that will be considered in the context of the upcoming Work Value Case being brought by the PPA.

This case will look at the extent to which the nature, skills and responsibilities and conditions of the role of community pharmacists has changed since the last work value review in 1998.

However the spokesperson says “the Guild position on this case is still being formulated”.

Guild Executive Director David Quilty broached the issue of remuneration mid-last year, acknowledging that pharmacist pay may not adequately reflect the value of pharmacists’ work nor the education required to practice.

“Traditional professions like teaching and nursing have long been concerned that their remuneration levels do not reflect the qualifications required to practice or the value of the work they do,” he wrote in an editorial.

“This trend is now extending to other health professions, including pharmacists, and even GPs and dentists.

“Guild members know the success of their pharmacy businesses inherently depend upon the skills, commitment and professionalism of their staff, particularly their fellow pharmacists,” Quilty said.

“This will be even more so in the evolving community pharmacy environment, with the viability of pharmacy businesses depending upon patient-centred, health solutions that go beyond the traditional dispensary.    

“Guild members also know that their current pharmacist staff are often the likely future owners of their businesses. As business proprietors, they are acutely aware of the need for sustainable succession planning and ownership pathways for their fellow pharmacists,” he said.

“For all these reasons, community pharmacy owners have a real and abiding interest in securing a bright future for the pharmacist profession.”

The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia (PSA) says that while AJP’s poll results are “startling”, there are other options for pharmacists beyond community pharmacy.

“These poll figures are startling; however over the past fortnight during PSA’s national roadshow, there has been level of optimism from pharmacists around PSA’s advocacy agenda for pursuing more diversity of career options for pharmacists,” PSA CEO Dr Lance Emerson tells AJP.

“Importantly, there is strong support from pharmacists in being able to access funding from a broader range of sources such as the MBS, to ensure a sustainable future for the profession and improved health outcomes.

“PSA is also helping to build new career pathways, broadening the funding base for pharmacists to improve wage rates, progressing positive programs such as the Health Destination Pharmacy program which brings new income to pharmacies and pharmacists and negotiating with health insurers to secure new roles and funding,” explains Dr Emerson.

What owners said

Owners have also added their own views on the penalty rates decision, although they were tightlipped in our poll for employers.

Nearly 40% of owners (just 34 votes) say they will continue to pay their employees higher than the base rates.

And 28% say the decision makes them feel bad for their employees.

While 28% say they will be able to open for longer and employ more staff, a further 28% say they will “lose staff who are unhappy with the rates”.

However in our comments section owners had much more to say in support of the PPA’s case to raise base wages.

“I am a pharmacy owner and I am surprised by this,” writes AJP reader Charlotte about the decision to cut penalty rates. “I would hope fair work is looking to increase the base rate for a pharmacist at some point soon. The award wage does not reflect the responsibilities of a pharmacist. I believe it needs to increase by about $10/hour.”

Another pharmacy owner agrees: “Not only is it a kick in the teeth to our employed colegues[sic] but it also gives corporate pharmacies another competitive advantage over independent pharmacy. Hopefully get a better decision when the work case value comes through”.

“I support Charlotte’s comments,” writes commenter Ashim. “It’s the Base Rate that needs to be adjusted now, in order to bring some fairness back into the Fair Work Commission’s decision. I don’t think many of the owners of small to medium pharmacies want to see their incredibly valuable professional staff worse off. Unless the base rate is increased then the main beneficiaries of the decision will be the likes of the Chemist Warehouse which, thus, continues to place pressure on the smaller operators who consequentially have less income to divide up.”

The leading sentiment from owners reflects the PSA’s official stance, with the group urging owners to pay above the award in the face of the cuts to penalty rates and widespread angst over the professional role of pharmacists.

“PSA acknowledges the many community pharmacy owners around Australia who pay their pharmacists and staff well above award rates, even under the current difficult financial climate,” PSA National President Joe Demarte says.

“We hope that this ruling by the Fair Work Commission will not impact this.

“It must be remembered that community pharmacies are not like other retail settings. Pharmacists are health professionals and their contribution needs to be recognised and remunerated in a different way to that of other retail workers,” Mr Demarte says.

“This will hit pharmacists very hard. Those who work on weekends and public holidays routinely provide advice and care that keeps people from presenting unnecessarily to emergency departments, which generates significant savings to Government.

“This mostly goes unrecognised and PSA has strongly advocated for Government to recognise and appropriately support both the network that provides this access and the pharmacists who deliver the care.”

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  1. Philip Smith

    The old bait and switch by the guild?
    Bait: We need penalty rates to come down before we can support/think about an increase in base rate/award.

    Switch:Base rate/award is a different matter to penalty rates!

  2. Cameron Walls

    It’s disappointing that the PSA are “urging owners to pay above the award” but seem to be unwilling to make a submission to the award/penalty rates review to support this recommendation.

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