District health boards are gearing up for the possibility of nurses striking across the country as they await the outcome of a vote on the latest pay offer.
Voting closes on Friday on whether to accept a revised collective agreement between nurses and DHBs. The deal includes an annual 2 per cent pay rise for around 27,000 nurses, hospital aides and core midwives, as well as a $1050 lump sum.
Hundreds of nurses have made their views known on social media, saying the offer does not go far enough and they are prepared to strike over intolerable working conditions, short staffing and poor pay.
A spokesman for the country's 20 DHBs said they were still hopeful that nurses would vote yes, but were "concerned" at reports nurses were ready to strike. It was "prudent" to prepare for a "no" vote, he said.
Planning began on Monday for DHB representatives to meet next week to discuss a national contingency plan in the event the latest offer is rejected.
The plan would cover how DHBs could continue to cover life-preserving services if nurses walked off the job or took less drastic industrial action, he said.
"If [the pay offer] is rejected we'd love to meet with the union to find out what we can do avoid industrial action."
The nurses' union was also hopeful the spectre of hospitals "emptying out", as in past regional strikes, would convince employers to act.
In the 1990s and early 2000s industrial action was taken at individual DHBs including Canterbury and Waikato as nurses from those areas called for better regional collective agreements.
Some strikes saw all elective surgeries and outpatient clinics cancelled, and non-member nurses coming in to cover for unionised colleagues, the NZ Nurses Organisation's industrial services manager Cee Payne said.
"The hospitals pretty much emptied out to all except those who were critically unwell," Payne said. "
"I don't know what that would mean in this context. Everybody's a lot sicker and unwell than 15 years ago when those strikes happened. It may not be possible now - everybody in hospital is critically ill."
Payne said nurses had not, in her memory, gone on national strike before. "It would be fairly significant."
By law, DHBs must ensure that patients' lives are not at risk and disabilities are prevented during industrial action. In the past hospitals have hired private healthcare workers and kept skeleton crews on during strikes.
"Nurses do find it a challenging ethical decision ... to walk away from patients," Payne said.
"I would seriously hope that the employers and the Government do support our members in their claims and step into the space before that would ever have to happen."
While voting is still open Payne could not comment on whether she felt the latest pay offer was fair, "because at the end of the day that has to be the democratic decision of the members."
But Payne felt strongly about the conditions nurses faced in hospital.
"They are suffering from increased workloads, they feel hospitals are unsafe, they're feeling stressed, fatigued, their job satisfaction is down - all of that is impacting on ultimately them feeling undervalued.
"We're standing right beside them and listening but we can't campaign at this point in time."
Vote counts would not be publicised until Monday, she said.
If the offer was rejected, the NZNO would start discussing a ballot for industrial action. Union delegates would make recommendations on the contents, including time, place and duration of any proposed strikes.
"For example, if we wanted a series of one-day strikes, we would put those dates in the ballot paper and members would vote on that."
The NZNO would have to give 14 days' notice before commencing industrial action.
The latest pay offer:
• Annual pay rise at 2 per cent, as in previous rejected offer. New graduates would be paid $51,447, up from $49,449; step 5 nurses would move from $66,755 to $69,452
• Senior nurses and midwives get extra 4 per cent from November last year and 2 per cent from August 2018, as previous offer
• Reduce proposed agreement to two years
• Increase lump sum payment from $350 to $1050
• Tighter safe staffing requirements
• Start pay equity process as soon as possible, with any settlement applying from July 1 2019