Stressed public hospital nurses’ concerns are real but a better pay offer may not resolve understaffing issues, believes a nurse leader. Or be helped by attacking union negotiators, adds a nurses’ union delegate.
Professor Jenny Carryer, executive director of the College of Nurses, says she has “absolute sympathy” with the district health board nurses over the lack of pay parity and stressed working conditions in public hospitals, but added that the “bigger picture” was complex. Erin Kennedy, a New Zealand Nurses Organisation delegate for over a decade, is also expressing concern at some members lack of understanding about the negotiations process.
Around 27,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistant members of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation start voting this week over whether to accept a revised pay offer from the 20 DHBs, knowing that the likely next step if they reject the deal is a strike ballot. Many stressed and stretched nurses have taken to social media to express their disappointment and anger over the offer and current working conditions, including some who have been highly critical of NZNO and the NZNO negotiating team.
Erin Kennedy, a nurse and an NZNO lead delegate at Capital and Coast DHB who has campaigned for a number of years for improved working conditions for nurses, has been saddened by some members using social media to make personal attacks on the negotiating team – particularly on the NZNO members Facebook group.
“I think unfortunately quite a few of the members have had very little experience of how pay talks work,” said Kennedy. “They think if you deserve 18 per cent you go along and ask for it and get it. And if somebody doesn’t get it then there is something wrong with the negotiating team. There is that lack of understanding.”
Kennedy said it was also unfortunate that many of the members did not realise how good the pay equity clause of the DHBs’ pay offer was. “I think it’s brilliant I’ve been jumping up and down with glee.”
“But I think too – when people are hard-up and living week to week – often they just need the money now and they don’t think further than that.”
Pay equity process the positive part of offer, says Union
The new pay offer remains at 2 per cent a year but shortens the length of the contract, increases the lump sum payment to $1050 and tightens the safe staffing requirements.
It also includes a commitment to start pay equity negotiations for all occupations covered by the agreement as soon as possible after ratifying the pay offer and that any pay equity settlement would apply from July 1 next year (no date was set for a settlement in previous offer).
The pay offer would result in a registered nurse with five years’ experience receiving an extra $4748 over two years on top of the current base salary, plus increases in penal and on-call rates.
NZNO has posted on its website short answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the deal, including what other occupation groups had received in recent pay deals (see below). It also stated that it did not believe the revised pay rated reflected what nurses were worth. “NZNO believe that your work has been subject to historical and systematic undervaluation because it’s been predominantly performed by women.”
The union went on to say that it saw the pay equity process as a positive opportunity to remedy this, but that developing a pay equity case took time and would require research, surveys and dialogue with members. NZNO acknowledged that there was ‘no guarantee’ that it would reach a pay equity settlement by July 1 2019, but added that the proposed MECA expired soon after that date “so that would be another opportunity to address pay issues and the government would be mindful of that”.
Kennedy said she was not a member of the current negotiating team but she had been part of pay negotiations in a previous career and knew how long it took to get a decent offer. “That’s why I think it must be quite gutting for our NZNO staff to have people personally attack them and imply they are not doing anything from one pay talk to the next.”
She said union organisers and other staff were constantly involved with disciplinary hearings, personal grievances, bullying mediation and sorting out back-pay.
Kennedy agreed it was tough for nurses in the current climate with a lot of care-rationing going on as there was never enough staff and that nurses were tired. “But directing their anger at their own union when their union is trying to help is not the way to go… I don’t really care whether people vote yes or no to this offer but I do get very upset at our NZNO organisers being attacked because our members don’t think the offer is high enough.”
She said in previous MECA (multi-employer collective agreement) ratifying rounds she could usually predict the result but “I couldn’t pick what this result is going to be”.
Increased pay offer might not resolve short-staffing
Carryer believed the pay climate situation was complex and whether an increased salary offer would improve nurses’ stressed working situation was not clear.
“I have absolute sympathy with exhausted and stressed nurses and their anger at the lack of pay parity,” said Carryer. “I also understand the inherent complexities of striking, which is almost always abhorrent to nurses.” She said multiple factors affected the ‘bigger picture” surrounding the pay deal.
“A new Labour Government has inherited what has been described elsewhere as a poisoned chalice, which has been many years in the making and it is clearly impossible to meet all the entirely justified demands for change and for pay equity. And while salary is entirely important, it may do nothing to reduce the work-based stress of nurses working in situations of rationed staffing. One might even fear that it may worsen the situation. Truly a significant dilemma with no easy solution.”
RECENT PAY OFFERS
- State sector wage increases averaged 1.9%
- Private sector wage increases averaged 1.7% over the past year
- Resident doctors settled for 1.7% and safer rosters
- Teachers’ wages had increased on average 2% since 2015 and increased by an average of 2% in 2017
- Police salaries increase by 2% a year over the past three years.
Source: NZNO DHB MECA Q&A