Award-Free Status Under Threat

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The DHAA continue to advocate for award-free status for the profession.

As always, the DHAA listens to its members concerns, as well as any voiced by the wider profession. In recent weeks we have noticed an increasing volume of concerns about industrial relations issues, in particular the lack of an award for our profession and potential for a union to represent our needs.

The DHAA would like to clarify some of the issues by providing a bit of background information, and the current and very serious problems we are facing.

A brief background to the issue
In 2009, the Australian Government went through an Award Modernisation process that looked to include Dental Hygienists on the Health Professionals and Support Services Award. The DHAA recognised that being included in this award would result in our profession having less benefits than it currently received (particularly in terms of wages) and engaged with an Industrial Relations Consultant to have our profession removed from this award. We involved Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association (ADOHTA) in these conversations, however they declined to support us.

The DHAA argued that dental hygiene and oral health therapy are highly qualified preventive professional disciplines. This position was supported by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) 2009 decision to remove dental hygienists from the award and have them declared award-free. In supporting the DHAA’s application, the Full Bench of the AIRC recognised that dental hygienists are not ancillary health care providers and therefore accepted that the closest comparison profession to dental hygiene is the employed dentist. This was a great win for the DHAA and the profession.

Why is this still an issue?
The Health Professionals and Support Services Award 2010 undergoes regular four-yearly reviews, one of which began in 2014. The DHAA have been working again with our IR consultant for the past two years to maintain the status quo, and ensure that the occupations of dental hygienist and oral health therapist are not covered by this or any modern Award.

However, in recent weeks ADOHTA have made a submission to the Fair Work Commission to include oral health therapists in the Award. This is in direct opposition to the years of work and successes of the DHAA, and in our opinion, will be extremely detrimental to the profession. As ADOHTA’s interests align with the Health Services Union (HSU), there is a renewed push to also include dental hygienists in the Award. Recent information shared on social media suggested that ADOHTA are in discussions with the HSU to include private practice hygienist’s and OHT’s.

What will it mean if we are covered by this award?
According to our legal advice, an experienced hygienist or oral health therapist (classified as Level 2) would have an award rate of $27.52 per hour. For a three-year degree qualified Dental Hygienist (DH) or (Oral Health Therapist (OHT), entry level rates (Level 1) is a princely $22.46 per hour. The further problem is that this is the rate for the “early years” of the health professional. There is no definition of how many years exactly that means. It could easily be four or five or more.

So a graduate could stay at Level 1 for five year and then at best, move to Level 2. A typical OHT or DH would never move beyond Level 2, as they have no supervisory or managerial capacity. The highest possible increment ever after four years at this level, in Level 2 is $30.78 per hour.

What can we do?
The DHAA will continue to advocate for the DH and OHT professions to be award-free. There is strength in numbers, and so we encourage all DH and OHT to join the DHAA in fighting for your best interests by being an active member.

We will continue to provide our Industrial Relations Advice Line service to members, which has a 48-hour turnaround for enquiries (a service that a union is unlikely to be able to offer). This service also includes free template contracts and guidance on structured professional relationships.

It is clear that our new professionals are not adequately prepared with industrial relations skills on graduation, and while we understand the curriculum is crowded the DHAA will examine how we can help Universities to better prepare students for life in private practice. We will also explore avenues for working with a range of employers on how to implement a team approach to care involving hygienists and OHT’s.

If you are a member of ADOHTA and you do not like the direction in which they are taking our profession, we suggest you phone or write to them to express your dissatisfaction.

Remember that the DHAA is your association and this is your industry. Together we are powerful so let’s make sure our voice heard.

Dr Melanie Hayes | President
[email protected]