A Far North rest home has received a string of rare exemptions allowing unvaccinated staff to work in the vulnerable setting at a time it is facing industrial action over pay and conditions.
According to E Tū Union, Claud Switzer Residential Home would not have needed to turn to unvaccinated staff had it backed off a plan to cut weekend and night shift penalty rates for domestic and health workers.
The Northland Age has sighted documentation showing Claud Switzer Residential Home was granted temporary exemptions for seven unvaccinated staff by the Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins on December 2.
The temporary exemptions expired on December 13 at 11.59pm and allowed staff to consider getting the AstraZeneca vaccine as an alternative to the Pfizer vaccine or time for recruitment.
E Tū Union Northland co-ordinator Annie Tothill said others working at the rest home were "shocked and surprised" to see the return of people who had previously refused to be vaccinated.
She claimed union members were feeling undervalued and disrespected and believed their health and safety was being put at risk by Claud Switzer's decision to bring back unvaccinated staff through the Ministry of Health's exemption status.
"The strike action last week was the last resort to show the trust's board and community there are major problems at Kaitaia's only rest home," Tothill claimed.
"E tū believes the situation could have been avoided had the employer offered a fair settlement of members' proposed collective agreement, which members have been negotiating since March 2021."
One resident at the rest home, who wished to remain anonymous, said she believed there had been a decline in care in recent years linked to a regular lack of staff at the facility.
She claimed she had been left waiting for prolonged periods to go to the toilet.
"The staff are good, but there's never enough of them, they just can't keep up," she said.
"I also worry when I need to go to the toilet or get out of bed as it requires others to lift me into a hoist which is hard with my weight.
"There's usually only ever one staff member that comes to help even though there should be two and I always get scared one of us is going to get hurt."
She said she too was surprised to see staff who had recently left because they weren't vaccinated, return to work.
"I asked one of the workers if she had received her injection and she told me it was none of my business."
Tanya Mehana has been a health worker at Claud Switzer for around seven years and currently works in the dementia wing.
She claimed it was a shock to both staff and the residents to see the unvaccinated workers back at the facility.
"We've all been made to get the vaccination to keep our jobs and those who wouldn't get vaccinated had to leave, including one of my friends," Mehana said.
"So I was like 'haaaau!' when I came into work one day and lo and behold, there was my friend, back at work too.
"She told me she had received an exemption and that she could come back into work."
Ministry of Health would not comment on the request for information regarding the exemptions, citing privacy reasons.
"The grounds for granting exemptions are very specific," a MOH spokesperson said.
"Where a critical service could be disrupted, an employer as a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) as defined in the Health and Safety at Work Act, can apply to the Ministry for a significant service disruption for individual employees.
"For example, where an affected worker cannot be replaced by another worker without causing a significant service disruption."
Simon Wallace, chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association, said he was not aware of any other of its members around the country that had applied for or had received such an exemption.
He said while the situation was not ideal, he believed it was the only alternative for the rest home and strict infection prevention protocols had been put in place.
"Switzer, which was already short-staffed due to border restrictions, lost an excessive number of staff due to the vaccine mandate," Wallace said.
"They were forced to apply for the Temporary Significant Service Disruption Exemption, which Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins granted for four weeks.
"Switzer had no alternative in order to continue operating and certainly did everything by the book to take extra precautions."
Claud Switzer chairman of the board Dr Peter Dryburgh said recruitment into the aged care sector had always been an issue and had only been exacerbated by Covid-19.
He said he believed the impact of Covid-19 had led to some of the current discontent felt by certain staff and residents.
"It has always been a struggle to recruit registered nurses into this sector, hence why we have had to recruit from overseas which we can't do now due to Covid-19," Dryburgh said.
"With regards to the vaccination exemptions, our CEO has had to comply with government mandates and has been very careful to protect staff and residents against Covid-19.
"As chairman of the board I can't really comment on the communication between staff and management regarding the unvaccinated workers, but our CEO is very competent and I hope that staff and management can work together to see the bigger picture."
The issue of safe staffing has been an ongoing issue nationwide, with workers at aged care homes and hospitals across New Zealand recently taking action at their workplaces and at Parliament.
E tū union members and NZNO, supported by national seniors network Grey Power, presented a parliamentary petition and open letter with almost 7000 signatures, calling for safe staffing levels to become mandatory across the sector.
Current staffing guidelines are voluntary only and implemented at the discretion of each aged care provider.
The petition called for a law to set down minimum staffing levels that all aged care homes or hospitals must have in place.