Northland primary healthcare staff across the region joined a 24-hour strike for pay parity yesterday.
The nationwide strike, which lasted from 8am yesterday to 8am today, was organised by New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) members to bring attention to the roughly 11 per cent pay gap between primary healthcare employees and district health board employees.
A group of over 20 general practice nurses and administrative staff turned out at Whangārei's Canopy Bridge and marched through town, armed with signs and chanting their message for pay parity.
"I think we are worth what our hospital colleagues are, having [done] both roles, you know that you're worth it," Bream Bay Medical Centre nurse Alexandra Maunder said.
"Our degree is worth the same as theirs, we shouldn't be paid less."
Maunder, 49, has been a nurse for almost four years - having worked at a DHB before moving into general practice. She believed that while the two roles were very similar, general practice nurses needed a wider knowledge base thanks to the variety of tasks they faced.
"If [a DHB nurse] worked on a medical ward, you're specialised in medical stuff and if you work in a surgical ward, you specialise in surgical, while we do a combination of everything."
Being paid roughly $7600 less annually than her DHB colleagues, Maunder said she knew of two nurses from her practice who had left, citing the financial benefit of working for a DHB.
Maunder said if the trend continued, Northlanders' healthcare would suffer.
"[The nurses] are taking huge experience with them because there's a lot of learning in the practice.
"If you haven't got experienced nurses working the practice, then they'll have to close because doctors can't do it all."
This was NZNO's second strike action on the subject following their eight-hour strike on September 3. A second 24-hour strike was planned for November 23.
NZNO Northland organiser Julie Governor couldn't confirm how many of the region's 177 members participated in the strike but hoped for a majority. Nationally, NZNO had about 3000 members, with many turning out to strike in Wellington and Christchurch.
Governor said the strike was a necessary evil for many primary healthcare workers, who would prefer to be helping their patients.
"None of us want to be on the picket line," she said.
"It's very difficult for this group to go out picketing because they want to be with their patients, especially on a Monday."
The pay parity issue is a complicated one. For privately-owned primary care operators such as GP practices, the Ministry of Health expects practice owners to pay the extra 11 per cent.
However, practice owners argue public funding for practices is too low for owners to afford the pay increase and run a profitable business. The practice owner's perspective will be explored in the Northern Advocate in the coming days.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said it was not appropriate for the Ministry to comment on wage rates agreed between private employees and employers.
While they acknowledged the pay gap existed, the spokesperson said the responsibility of negotiation rested with the employer (practice owner), while the Ministry was responsible for ensuring any impacts of the strike action was managed with minimum disruption to public health services.
NZNO industrial adviser for primary care Chris Wilson said negotiations were held between representatives from the Ministry, DHBs and primary care practice owners in September when pay parity was established as a priority issue.
However, Wilson said the lack of action from then had left many frustrated.
"What's clear is additional funding has to be provided and the employers want pay parity, but they need the additional funding and so, at mediation, they still hadn't been given any additional funding, so they were absolutely unable to make progress."
As a result of the pay gap, Wilson said primary care was losing nurses "hand over fist", with reports of practices advertising nursing positions and only receiving one applicant, who was often not sufficiently experienced.
She said this exodus would only heap more pressure on an already stretched secondary care system.
"If we have to reduce services due to recruitment and retention issues, patients will be heading to public hospitals sooner and that will actually cost the health dollar more."
The Northland DHB has acknowledged how stretched Whangārei Hospital's emergency department is and is recommending people visit GP practices for their health concerns if it wasn't an emergency.