Student frontline workers go unpaid

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Student nurses, midwives and radiographers have been working as frontline staff since the beginning of the pandemic. Once again they have not yet received wages for their efforts in the second wave of the virus. These students are obliged to carry out clinical placements as part of their degree.

There was backlash in March when it became obvious student workers were being put in a dangerous position by being obliged to complete placements, often in close contact with Covid. Most third-level institutes allowed students to postpone placement, however, this isn’t feasible for many students as it would delay their degree, and often require the completion of placement during summer when they would not have accommodation. Without having completed placements and gained the required experience, healthcare students career prospects will suffer massively.

Many organisations such as INMO (Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation) helped to highlight the situation and put pressure on the government.

At the height of the pandemic, it came to light that due to staff pressures student workers were often left unsupervised on clinical placement. Students were often also redeployed to carry out duties outside their learning programme, for example taking part in swabbing or contact tracing. In March the INMO called on the Department of Health and the HSE (Health Service Executive) for wages for any duties outside those traditionally required on clinical placements. They also called on the NMBI (Nurses and Midwifery Board of Ireland) to relax the need to repay time of placement missed during the pandemic.

On March 26th, the HSE pledged to pay student nurses and midwives of all years, by the employment of these students on temporary crisis contracts at the payment rate of health care assistants. A proportion of the employment would count towards making up the hours of clinical placement, however, this employment was not mandatory. First, second, and third-year nursing and midwifery students had the opportunity to extend the temporary contracts until the 31st of August. Fourth-year students taking part in an internship would continue to receive payment until the end of the internship.

The majority of radiography students on a seven-week placement never received any payment for their efforts. Speaking to The University Observer, a 4th year radiography student confirmed “radiography students never received any form of payment despite beginning final placements the week lockdown began in March”. “Most patients in ICU suffering with COVID19 need daily portable chest x-rays, which would involve us donning full PPE and coming in contact with positive COVID patients on a daily basis. Working in the A&E departments, we would encounter many COVID and query COVID patients daily who would present to the hospital with symptoms. These patients often require chest x-rays on presentation to the hospitals. May of us had to move out of our houses due to the risk we posed to our families from being in contact with COVID patients daily”.  At the height of the pandemic, fourth-year radiography students were employed immediately after their placement ended, for which they did receive wages.

Although the HSE acknowledged the seriousness of the situation at the beginning of the pandemic since the second wave began payment contracts have finished, and student frontline staff have once again been obliged to work unpaid.

On the 16th of October, the INMO again called on the Government to “stop exploiting student nurses and midwives”. The organisation is calling for the payment provided in March to be reinstated and to increase student allowances. The INMO General Secretary, Phil Ní Sheaghdha described students as being “taken for granted”. She outlined that despite the “indispensable” work they are doing, often  “facing huge workloads and risking COVID infection” they receive no “financial recognition”. She compared the situation of the majority of third-level institutes, where students are now protected from the virus by studying online, with that of student nurses and midwives who must “attend very dangerous workplaces to fulfil their learning objectives”.  

The difficulty faced by students who previously worked as healthcare assistants on a part-time basis was also highlighted, as many hospitals no longer allow students to work outside the hospital if also doing placement as it creates a higher risk of infection transmission. Ní Sheaghdha described how this source of income being cut, combined with the extra work and increased risk, resulted in a “raw deal” for student nurses and midwives.

The Union of Students Ireland (USI) has stated they “fully support” the call from INMO. USI has also campaigned for increased support for student nurses and midwives.

Lily Muldowney, a nursing student at UCD described her experience of working during the pandemic, outlining how she often works “39 hours of placement a week”, but to make any money needs to work at least 12 hours on top of this, totalling a “51 hour week”.

Muldowney emphasised the stress of now being exposed to Covid on a daily basis, describing how on “various placements” patients have received Covid positive results after she has “spent all day taking care of them - unprotected”.

Muldowney also emphasised the fact many placement locations are “not allowing students to work in two different places due to cross-contamination”, leaving students devoid of any source of income.

Expressing her distress at the fact that despite these realities, there is still “no consideration to pay nurses”. Muldowney described how some of her nursing colleagues have kids at home, and all of them have bills to pay. She highlighted the increased financial pressure as many students have had to move out of home and live in rented accommodation in order to “protect their families or vulnerable people” from any risk of infection from placement, yet there is still “no consideration for these extra costs”.

Muldowney outlined that although she “loves” her course, her experience during the pandemic has “put into perspective how much we are really valued”. Muldowney was one of the many student nurses who took on contracts in March following the call from the HSE and spent the summer working in hospitals in order to help out with the pandemic. She wondered why students received wages in March but not now, asking “what is the difference between then and pandemic level 5?”.

Muldowney stated that its “very disheartening” to see herself and fellow nurses working hard, and putting themselves at risk with “no payment or acknowledgement in return”.