Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Wake up! Time to pay support staff

Health Minister Tony Ryall. Photo / Getty Images
Health Minister Tony Ryall. Photo / Getty Images

Brian Rudman writes that there is no reason to delay the law for disability care workers on sleepover shifts.

On Monday, the Cabinet agreed that New Zealand's 5700 disability support workers deserved to receive the minimum wage for overnight sleepover shifts.

But in a final gesture of the official mean-spiritedness that has dogged this struggle over five years and two governments, the winners are going to be kept waiting.

Health Minister Tony Ryall says the Government will introduce legislation to Parliament before the election to make the reform possible. But he and his staff have indicated the Government is making no effort to ensure the legislation passes before the country goes to the polls.

Perhaps the National Government sees few votes in doing the right thing by these scandalously low paid workers. Though they might be surprised. When your pay suddenly rockets from a derisory $3.77 an hour to $13 an hour, who knows, traditional party loyalties might well waver.

But even if they're not interested in gaining the votes of the lowest paid, National risks being seen as a bad loser if it doesn't ensure this simple legislation is pushed through in the remaining three weeks of parliamentary sitting time.

Labour's Labour Issues spokeswoman Darien Fenton says the Opposition will co-operate with the Government on the legislation so that these workers can begin to be rightly remunerated, so National really has no excuses for seeing its good work through to its conclusion.

As I pointed out earlier this year when writing about this issue, the Government has no hesitation in leaping to the rescue of its sort of people with dollops of public cash when it has a mind to. When 38,000 followers of the cult of Hubbard lost their shirts with the collapse of South Canterbury Finance, the Government said "there, there", and handed out $1.75 billion of taxpayer dollars in full compensation. There was not even a discount to punish them for their greed or stupidity or bad judgment.

The Government also rushed to the aid of rich movie-maker Sir Peter Jackson when local actors seeking a few crumbs from the master's table raised his ire. Swatting the actors aside, Prime Minister John Key smoothed the movie-maker's feathers by offering an extra $20 million tax break for his US partners.

Both examples show that where there's a will, governments can find the money fast.

More than 20 years ago, politicians on both sides of the House embraced the "modern" idea of caring for citizens with physical and mental disabilities within the community. The doors of the daunting Victorian-era psychiatric and psychopaedic hospitals were thrown open and a new era of enlightened care was announced. But from the start it was under-funded, propped up by the cheap labour of vital community-based support workers.

In 2007, the Service Workers Union went to the Employment Relations Agency seeking the minimum wage for sleepover workers, instead of the miserable lump sum shift payment they then received. In the case of IHC workers in whose name the settlement was sought, this amounts to $34 total for a nine-hour shift or $3.77 an hour.

The ERA agreed, at which stage IHC, which is bulk-funded to provide the service by the Government, appealed. And when it lost the appeal, it appealed again all the way to the Supreme Court.

This week's settlement is belated acknowledgement by the Government that it, and IHC, faced another defeat if the Supreme Court hearing went ahead.

As recently as July, when the union negotiators rejected a previous Government offer, Tony Ryall complained about the workers exploiting a "legal technicality" and wanting to be paid the minimum wage "for sleeping".

In response to this, John Ryall, the service workers national secretary, spoke of the problems providing overnight support for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues. This may include dealing with challenging behaviour, seizures or vomiting. "If they manage to get some sleep, they are on call."

That's the point the union made in the Employment Court. Firefighters, ambulance officers and resident doctors all get paid their full rate while sleeping "on call" so why not these caregivers?

The $100 million deal now agreed between the Government, IHC and the union is to be phased in over 15 months, with workers not getting the full $13 an hour minimum wage until Christmas 2012.

Sleepover work dating back to July 2004 will also be eligible for a backpay top-up, for a few reaching upwards of $70,000. The settlement also opens up the possibility of workers for other providers of similar services getting the same deal IHC workers have negotiated.

To trigger the backpay payments, the legislation has to be passed. The agreement states that 50 per cent of backpay will be handed to the workers no later than eight weeks after Parliament rubber-stamps the agreement. By rights, these workers should have received this money from at least 2004. It is theirs, and with Christmas approaching, they shouldn't have to wait a day longer.

If Parliament doesn't deal with it before it closes down for the election campaign, they could still be waiting into the New Year. They've surely waited long enough.

- NZ Herald

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