New Zealand Nurses Organisation members who work for our 20 district health board (mainly in hospitals) have been in multi-employer collective agreement (MECA) negotiations with their employers for the last six months.
On April 1, we were able to present the first official DHB offer to members. These 30,000 or so mainly nurses, but also midwives, health care assistants (HCAs) and kai mahi hauora, have mostly reacted with dismay and disappointment – and have dubbed it the April Fool's Day offer.
There is good reason for this. The DHB offer falls short in so many ways. It will entrench highly pressurised working conditions fuelled by unsafe workloads and under-staffing. It will leave nurses struggling financially and it will have an impact on future health challenges, such as a significant Covid outbreak.
Recently, Aotearoa New Zealand has asked the extraordinary of nurses and our members have given their all to the point of exhaustion – and they have been offered "austerity" in return.
Nurses have had enough. Many are now saying they will leave the profession or work overseas as soon as they can. It is already difficult to attract new people to a profession with huge responsibilities; where the hours are long, the pressure is immense, and the pay is so pitiful.
Nurses start on around $54,000 (often with huge student loans), which, considering the cost of living, is ridiculously low for such a vital group of health professionals holding graduate and in many cases post-graduate qualifications.
Salaries progress up a series of pay steps, but even nurses who have been working for many years are, for example, told by banks that their salaries will never be enough for them to receive a home loan. HCAs, who provide direct care to patients start on a salary that has now been overtaken by the minimum wage.
Covid has only intensified the pressure. DHB nursing staff working in isolation and quarantine facilities has exacerbated the acute staffing shortage. Is it any wonder they feel undervalued by an offer that does nothing to attract more people into the profession or help retain the staff we have?
Just about everyone who has been to hospital talks about the wonderful nursing staff, so caring and helpful despite being insanely busy. What patients don't see is the frustration and the tears spilled in the car after work because it wasn't possible to provide the level of care patients needed. Typically nursing staff rush from patient to patient, tired and hungry, stressed and fearful of making a harmful mistake.
This was already the case before Covid pushed things to breaking point and many nursing staff feel they can no longer endure the poor pay, the fear, the exhaustion and their employers' persistent failure to provide enough staff to keep themselves and their patients safe.
The fact the DHBs are already spinning this as a fair and reasonable offer in the media is further heartbreak for nursing staff. Yes, HCAs on Step One will receive 11 per cent (but that's only a couple of hundred people who were working below the new minimum wage).
The DHBs also say nurses should factor in their Pay Equity claim soon to be negotiated with Government that will ask for their wages to equal those of similar male-dominated professions. But pay equity is a completely separate process to contract negotiations with the outcome yet to be determined. It can't be offered as a potential solution, and this actually equates to the DHBs saying they are happy to keep undervaluing nurses and their work until required to do otherwise.
Sadly, the DHBs are offering less than a tenth of what nurses have asked for. Most will receive an annualised increase of 1.38 per cent. And with inflation at 1.4 per cent this actually amounts to a pay cut.
That is not really negotiation. It's just the same short-sighted thinking that relies on the goodwill and compassion of nurses who deserve goodwill and compassion themselves.
Our members have been clear that this offer is unacceptable so we will now go into formal mediation with the DHBs. For all our sakes, let's hope funding can be found for a much more worthy offer.
This is a time of added stress for nursing staff so if you're near one, please show them your appreciation and tell them they have your support.
• David Wait is industrial adviser and lead advocate with the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.