For three years, the Health Services Union (HSU), which covers ambulance drivers, has been pleading with the state Labor government to employ 300 additional ambulance service staff in NSW. In late July they lost patience.
Hundreds of paramedics rallied outside parliament house on July 22 to demand the sacking of NSW Ambulance Service boss Greg Rochford and the immediate employment of 300 extra staff. The angry protesters gave the government 48 hours to agree to their demands, threatening industrial action if the government refused.
The ambulance drivers say they are being pushed to the point of exhaustion. In city areas, drivers often have to do an extra two or more hours of overtime at the end of each shift, and in country areas many drivers spend every waking hour either working or on call. This results in severe stress for the workers and the high probability of fatigue-induced mistakes on the job, which risk both patients' and the drivers' lives.
At noon on July 24, after the government refused to meet the workers' demands, the HSU members placed a ban on collecting patients' financial information, which allows everyone who uses an ambulance to ride for free.
The NSW government collects more than $70 million a year in ambulance fees (approximately $200,000 per day), and on July 25, the full bench of the NSW Industrial Relations Commission directed the union to cease all current industrial action and "refrain from further industrial action".
Meanwhile, a review of the ambulance service conducted by the Department of Premier and Cabinet has been rejected by the HSU as superficial and highly flawed. The HSU's 13-page response begins, "How could the Department of Premier and Cabinet get it so wrong?"
MLC Robyn Parker, the chairperson of the parliamentary inquiry into the ambulance service, told media in mid-June that she had been "inundated" with calls from paramedics detailing low morale and high stress levels. "Anecdotally, we can see there is a high suicide rate among ambulance officers", she said.