In the complex world of industrial relations, few instruments are more critical yet confusing than the Nurses Award. Covering over 300,000 nurses and midwives across Australia, it provides the foundation for their wages, leave, allowances, and other working conditions.
Yet the technical nature of awards means they are often misunderstood or misapplied by employers. This can lead to costly cases of non-compliance.
With frequent updates and lengthy clauses, keeping on top of award obligations is easier said than done.
So, this guide aims to provide a clear, concise walk-through of the key provisions. Consider it your plain-English handbook to the essentials you need to know.
We’ll set out exactly who is covered, minimum entitlements, recent changes, and why ongoing compliance matters.
Who is Covered by the Nurses Award?
The Nurses Award is an occupation-based award, and broadly covers employed nurses, midwives, and some nursing support roles across Australia in the health industry. However, employers need to be sure that it covers them given there are some exclusions and it’s possible another modern award or enterprise agreement may have coverage.
In general, the main types of employees covered include:
- Registered nurses: This includes both general registered nurses and specialist registered nurses like nurse practitioners and clinical nurses. To be covered, they must be employed providing nursing care and services.
- Enrolled nurses: Enrolled nurses with a diploma qualification who are employed providing nursing care and services are covered.
- Midwives: Registered midwives employed in nursing care and service roles fall under this award.
- Nursing assistants: Unlicensed nursing assistants performing basic clinical and non-clinical support roles are covered by the Nurses Award.
- Dental nurses: Dental nurses fall under the Nurses Award, not the Health Professionals Award.
The Nurses Award also contains classifications for managers, educators, and researchers, meaning coverage is broad. However, there are exceptions. For example, registered nurses employed as teachers, inspectors, or in administrative positions may fall under other awards.
Some enrolled nurses in administrative roles may also be excluded from coverage.
Types of Employment under the Nurses Award
There are three main employment categories under the award:
- Full-time: Full-time nurses work an average of 38 hours per week. They are entitled to all award conditions, including full paid leave.
- Part-time: Part-time nurses work less than 38 hours per week. All entitlements are calculated on a pro-rata basis.
- Casual: Casual nurses have no guaranteed hours and are paid a casual loading to compensate for lack of leave. The casual loading is typically an additional 25% added to their hourly wage rate. This extra pay is in lieu of paid leave entitlements.
Minimum Engagement for Part-Time and Casual Employees
The Nurses Award contains minimum engagement periods for part-time and casual employees. This means part-time nurses cannot be rostered for less than a certain number of hours at a time.
For example, part-time nurses cannot be rostered for less than 4 hours per engagement, and casual nurses cannot be rostered for less than a 2-hour shift. If the engagement is less than 4 or 2 hours, respectively, they are still entitled to receive 4 or 2 hours of pay.
Right to Request Casual Conversion
Some casual employees have the right to request conversion to full-time or part-time employment under certain conditions, including:
- Having been employed for 12 months on a regular and systematic basis
- Having worked a pattern of hours over the last 6 months that could continue in the future
The employee must make the request in writing. The employer must respond in writing within 21 days, providing reasons if the request is refused.
Refusal can only be on “reasonable grounds” related to facts and circumstances. Relevant considerations include the following:
- Nature of work
- Staffing needs
- Financial impact
If the employer does not comply with these casual conversion provisions, it may constitute a breach of the award.
Key Provisions of the Nurses Award
Under the Nurses Award, employers must pay nurses and midwives at least the base pay rates and entitlements set out in the award’s pay scales. These are expressed as weekly or hourly rates, depending on the employment category and classification.
It is crucial that employers are aware of the current minimum wage rates specified in the award and that all nurses are paid at least this minimum for their skill level, experience, and hours worked.
The Fair Work Ombudsman provides updated pay guides that summarise the minimum wages under the Nurses Award in an easy-to-digest format. This is a helpful resource for ensuring pay compliance.
Also, the Fair Work Commission website contains searchable pay scales with the specific pay rates contained in the Nurses Award. These set out the appropriate minimum base wages, allowances, overtime, and penalty rates.
While actual wages may be higher than the award if set by an enterprise agreement, the award provides the legal minimums that all employers need to meet.
Allowances refer to additional pay and benefits provided to compensate nurses for specific conditions, costs, or requirements related to their role.
Under the Nurses Award, common allowances include:
- On-call allowance: provides additional pay when required to be on call for duty outside of normal hours. Compensates for restrictions required when on call.
- Clothing and equipment: covers the provision and/or reimbursement of uniforms, clothing, or protective equipment required for the role.
- Uniform: Allowance for purchasing and/or laundering uniforms when a specified uniform is required.
- Laundry: allowance for laundering and maintenance of uniforms provided by the employer
- Meal: Provides a meal allowance payment if required to work overtime beyond a certain time without notification.
- Travel, transport, and fares: covers reimbursement for work-related travel, such as using a private vehicle for tasks.
The Medical Practitioners Award is an occupational award that covers employers of medical practitioners throughout Australia in the classifications listed under the Award to the exclusion of any other modern award, provided they are employed as a medical practitioner in:
- Benevolent homes
- Day procedure centres
- Aboriginal health services
- Community health centres
- Red Cross Blood Service
- South Australian Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science
- Victorian Cytology Service
- Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine
The Medical Practitioners Award covers medical practitioners who are classified as:
- Resident medical practitioners
- Senior registrars
- Career medical practitioners
- Senior career medical practitioners
- Community medical practitioners
- Senior specialists
- Principal specialists
- Senior principal specialists
- Deputy directors of medical services
- Directors of medical services
- General practitioners working at a day procedure centre
The award also applies to labour-hire companies that employ medical practitioners.
As an employer, you must contribute to superannuation on behalf of your employees. This is known as the Superannuation Guarantee (SG).
The SG is currently set at 11% of an employee’s ordinary time earnings for the 2023–24 financial year. This rate will gradually increase by 0.5% each year until stabilising at 12% in 2025.
Therefore, when paying nurses and other employees, you need to add the required SG percentage on top of their wages and salary sacrifice into a complying super fund.
Hours of Work
The Nurses Award contains comprehensive provisions regulating hours of work, rostering, and breaks to support health and safety.
- For day workers, ordinary hours are between 6am – 6pm, Monday through Friday.
- Shiftworkers work ordinary hours outside this span, according to a roster, at any time of day or week.
- Full-time employees work 38 hours per week, 76 hours per fortnight, or 152 hours over 28 days.
- The maximum shift length is 10 hours, excluding meal breaks.
- An employee is entitled to be free from duty for not less than 2 full days each week, or 4 full days in a fortnight, or 8 full days in each 28-day cycle.
Accrued Days Off (ADOs)
- An employer can implement an ADO system where a full-time employee works no more than 19 days in a 4-week period of 152 hours.
- An employee entitled to an ADO must take it within 12 months of accruing it.
- An employer can agree to an employee accruing up to 5 ADOs in any one year.
- If an employee has untaken ADOs when their employment terminates, the employer has to pay them for their accumulated ADOS at ordinary pay rates. Where it is practical, the days off must be consecutive.
- Employees work according to a weekly or fortnightly roster set by the employer.
- The roster shows daily ordinary hours and start and finish times.
- Rosters must be displayed 7 days prior to the roster period commencing.
- Employees should provide 7 days’ notice for a roster change request, except in cases of illness or emergency.
- Employers must provide 7 days’ notice of a roster change, unless covering another employee’s absence or emergency.
- There must be a 10-hour break between work periods or shifts, which can be reduced to 8 hours by mutual agreement.
- If an employee has to resume work without a 10- or 8-hour break, they must be paid 200% of their minimum hourly rate until released for the break.
Here is a table summarising the overtime rates for full-time, part-time, and casual employees as specified in the information you provided:
Full-Time and Part-Time
|First 2 hours||150% of minimum hourly rate||200% of minimum hourly rate||250% of minimum hourly rate|
|After 2 hours||200% of minimum hourly rate||200% of minimum hourly rate||250% of minimum hourly rate|
|First 2 hours||150% of casual hourly rate||200% of casual hourly rate||250% of casual hourly rate|
|After 2 hours||200% of casual hourly rate||200% of casual hourly rate||250% of casual hourly rate|
Key points to keep in mind:
- Overtime rates do not apply to Registered Nurse levels 4 and 5
- Overtime rates substitute shift, weekend and public holiday penalties
- Part-time employees receive overtime rates for hours exceeding daily full-time hours
Time Off Instead of Overtime Pay
If an employee and employer agree, overtime pay can be swapped for equivalent paid time off instead. For example, 2 hours of overtime could become 3 hours of time off. However, this time must be taken within 6 months at an agreed time. If time off is not taken, the overtime payment must be made at the applicable rate.
Rest Period After Overtime
Adequate rest between shifts is important. So, employees are entitled to receive at least 10 consecutive hours off duty in between work periods. If an employee has to resume work without a 10-hour break, they must receive 200% of their base rate until they can take the rest break.
Paid Rest Break During Overtime
If an employee has to work overtime beyond 4 hours, they are entitled to a paid 20-minute rest break.
Recall to Work When On-Call or Not
If you have a nurse who’s “on call” outside their normal shifts, it essentially means they’re agreeing to stay available in case they need to come into work. The award makes provision for this to ensure nurses are adequately compensated for the potential disruption.
For example, if a nurse gets called back into a hospital while on-call, they must receive a minimum of 3 hours at the overtime rate, even if the issue only takes an hour to resolve.
If they can handle an on-call issue remotely, like some questions over the phone, they’ll still receive a minimum of 1 hour of overtime pay.
Being “on-call” means an employee must be available outside normal hours to be called into work if needed.
In some situations, an employee may be recalled to work even if they’re not on call. If that is the case, they must get paid for a minimum of 3 hours of work at the overtime rate.
Note: Keep in mind that in a recall to work situation, travel time to and from the workplace generally counts as time worked, and an on-call allowance may apply when an employee is required to be available outside normal hours.
Working shifts beyond normal daytime hours is common in nursing. The Nurses Award provides additional pay to employees working afternoon and night shifts from Monday to Friday, as well as enhanced weekend rates on Saturdays and Sundays.
Afternoon and Night Shift Loadings
|Afternoon (starts 12pm-6pm)||12.5% of base rate|
|Night (starts 6pm-7:30am)||15% of base rate|
Take note, however:
- These loadings do not apply on Saturday or Sunday
- They also don’t apply to Registered Nurses at pay levels 4 and 5
Weekend Penalty Rates
|Hours Worked||Penalty Rate|
|Midnight Fri- Midnight Sat||150% of base rate|
|Midnight Sat – Midnight Sun||175% of base rate|
Penalty Rates for Saturday and Sunday Work
Any nurses who are covered by this award and who are required to work on a Saturday or Sunday are entitled to certain penalty rates to compensate for having to work over the weekend.
If they are rostered on for normal shifts between midnight Friday and midnight Saturday, they must receive 150% of their base hourly rate. The rate then increases to 175% of their standard rate if they work ordinary weekend hours between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday.
The Nurses Award provides the following instructions for annual leave:
- 4 weeks paid leave per year under the National Employment Standards (NES)
- Additional 1 week leave under the Nurses Award, so 5 weeks total annual leave
- Shiftworkers get an extra week, making it six weeks paid annual leave per year
You must also pay employees an annual leave loading when they take leave.
- Non-shiftworkers get 17.5% extra loading on 4 weeks leave
- Shiftworkers get the higher of 17.5% loading or their normal weekend/shift penalties
A shiftworker may get their 25% weekend penalty rate as loading instead of 17.5%
Alternative Annual Leave Arrangements
- Leave in Advance: An employee and employer can mutually agree in writing for paid annual leave to be taken before it has accrued. This is known as leave in advance.
- Cashing Out Annual Leave: Employees and employers can also agree in writing to cash out annual leave, provided:
- At least 4 weeks of accrued leave remain.
- An award or registered agreement allows cashing out
- The employee is paid the full amount that would have been paid if taking the leave
- Excessive Leave Accruals: If an employee has accrued more than 8 weeks of annual leave (or 10 weeks for shiftworkers), the employer and employee can agree to reduce the accrued leave by taking some of it. This prevents excessive leave balances from building up.
Navigating the complex Nurses Award can be a challenge for healthcare providers. While this guide covers the key provisions, it’s normal to still have questions or need clarification.
If you are unsure of your full responsibilities and entitlements under the Nurses Award, it can be helpful to engage an employment law firm like WilliamsonBarwick.
Their lawyers have extensive experience advising on the Nurses Award and can assist you in fully understanding your obligations as a nurse or employer. They can also support you in resolving any conflicts or issues that may arise under the award.
Don’t risk non-compliance; contact us today to discuss your specific needs relating to the Nurses Award.