The Cumulative Costs of Wage Caps for Essential Service Workers in NSW

by Jim Stanford

Since 2012 the NSW government has arbitrarily suppressed pay gains for workers in state-funded public services (including health care, education, public administration, emergency services, and more). At first those pay caps were justified as a deficit-reduction measure, and then later as being supposedly tied to inflation trends. But both those arguments have been discarded, given state surpluses in most years since the cap was introduced, and now the dramatic acceleration in inflation (now running more than twice as fast as allowed compensation gains).

In this new report, Centre for Future Work Economist and Director Jim Stanford adds up the enormous and growing cost of this decade-long wage suppression for nurses, midwives, and other public sector workers in NSW.

In any given year, the state’s wage cap reduces compensation below what would have been determined under normal free collective bargaining processes. When sustained over many years, however, the wage caps have an exponential effect in suppressing compensation levels. That’s because each year’s continued wage cap is applied against a lower starting wage base. Over time, the gap between capped and negotiated pay widens dramatically.

The report estimates that compared to long-run pre-cap compensation trends, experienced nurses and midwives made $335 less per week in 2021-22 (or $17,500 less for the year) compared to pre-cap trends. On a cumulative basis, they have already lost $80,000 in compensation since the caps were introduced.

But that pay suppression will continue to get worse if the caps are maintained. By 2023-24, on the basis of the government’s stated plan to suppress compensation growth to 3% and 3.5% (and restrain wages even lower, after adjusting for superannuation), the loss in wages will grow to $390 per week (or over $20,000 for the year), and the cumulative loss for someone who has worked throughout the wage cap period will reach $120,000.

Worse yet, for three consecutive years, the NSW pay caps have reduced wage growth well below inflation, resulting in a significant erosion of real wages for nurses, midwives and other public sector workers. Public sector workers will see real purchasing power decline by 7.5% by end 2023-24 (on the basis of RBA inflation forecasts and the NSW government’s stated cap). That is equivalent to a loss of $6750 for a full-time experienced nurse or midwife.

The economic pain experienced by public sector workers will not even stop when they retire. Because superannuation contributions are tied automatically to wages, nurses, midwives, and other public sector workers have lost thousands of dollars in superannuation contributions from their employers — and thousands more in foregone investment income on those contributions. That will translate into reduced superannuation balances and pension income after retirement. Already, an experienced nurse or midwife has had their pension income reduced by $1000 per year, and those losses will get larger the longer the pay caps are maintained. And because of the sustained suppression of their wages (and hence their superannuation savings), the goal of a decent stable retirement is increasingly out of reach for many NSW workers — especially for women, and especially for those who do not own their home. The report indicates that under existing capped wages, a nurse or midwife who is single, female, and rents their accommodation will accumulate less than half of the superannuation savings required for them to meet the ASFA comfortable retirement income threshold.

In summary, the NSW’s ongoing suppression of pay for public sector workers, whose commitment has been essential to helping NSW residents through the pandemic, is arbitrary, anti-democratic, and economically damaging. The report recommends that the government abandon this policy, and instead engage in normal pay negotiations with public sector workers and their unions, on the basis of normal wage determinants.

Full report