An under-staffed social work agency has been turning away applicants because it can't afford to pay them enough.

The struggles at Birthright Hawke's Bay and other agencies have intensified due to the huge pay gap with Oranga Tamariki (OT) social workers.

A year on from when government social workers got a 30 per cent pay rise, non-government organisations (NGOs) are still counting the cost of being unable to keep up, or pay up.

"For a small agency, it's quite devastating," said Libby Robins, who heads the Family Help Trust in Christchurch.

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They had lost four social workers due to the pay gap, and the costs to recruit to fill the gaps were mounting, she said.

Andy Pilbrow of Birthright Hawke's Bay knows what that is like.

"We've run over 12 recruitments and often we don't get anyone coming through qualified, or one or two coming through qualified."

Pilbrow began looking overseas for a solution, particularly to the UK.

"In one case we actually signed someone up to a contract, and a couple days later they came back on the advice of their immigration support person and said they can't accept the role because the pay was too low.

"They weren't able to satisfy their visa requirements on the pay that we could offer."

So, with just two salaries he can offer - $44,000 for new graduates and $48,000 for experienced social workers - Pilbrow is no longer shortlisting such applicants.

"We've had a couple of really good applicants lately and we just know we can't meet the visa requirements. So we tend to just rule them out now," he said.

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"It's pretty grim and I think we'll see the impacts for a few years yet."

He has lost six staff out of 17 to Oranga Tamariki this year, and several more to other higher-paying public service jobs.

"There's a couple of areas where we've really struggled just to deliver against what we've done every year for many years, so [it's a] huge impact," Pilbrow said.

Zoe Truell of Lifewise in Auckland took six months to attract four new staff, by bumping salaries up to $55,000-$65,000 a year, near the top of the non-government or NGO scale.

"In comparison, we're looking at the new rates at Oranga Tamariki going from $60,000 to $110,000.

"So, wildly different."

The pay differential is now on average $27,000.

Social Service Providers Aotearoa said the highest-paid NGO social worker got just $2400 more than the lowest-paid government counterpart.

The NGOs spoken to by RNZ make clear they do not begrudge government social workers for the pay rise, quite the opposite; and say they are getting a little more for the contract work they do for Oranga Tamariki - a 6 per cent rise and an adjustment for inflation recently - but say it's not enough.

They also bristle recalling what Children's Minister Tracey Martin told a recent NGO conference about the pay gap.

National Party's spokesman for children, Alfred Ngaro, describes it this way: "The question from the floor was about the pay equity issue and the impact that that has.

Alfred Ngaro, National Party's spokesman for children, says pay equality will be looked into. Photo / File
Alfred Ngaro, National Party's spokesman for children, says pay equality will be looked into. Photo / File

"The next comment was what took people by [surprise], from the minister, who simply said, 'You won't like what I'm about to say. But the reason for that is that Oranga Tamariki social workers are constantly faced with death threats'," Ngaro said.

"People just were outraged. People started challenging her."

Lifewise's Zoe Truell said she was aware of the exchange.

"I did hear about it, it certainly caused upset," she said, at the implication being that NGO social workers engaged with only lower-risk cases.

"For instance, we work with whānau who are referred from Oranga Tamariki, who are on the edge of having their children removed. So we're the last stop," she said.

"This is very high-risk work ... It does not fit with Tracey Martin's statements that OT staff need to be paid more because they are statutory workers.

"Our staff working on those much lower salaries, are working with the same risk, the same responsibility."

Family Help Trust's Libby Robins said her workers, too, were at the sharp end with high-risk families. But until this year, they had stuck with it, and it was unprecedented for her to struggle to fill vacancies.

If that continued - compounded by a $2000 difference per family per year between what government contracts pay, and what services cost - she said that Martin would not be able to reduce child abuse, while at the coalface there would be "panic".

While National's Ngaro pushed back at a suggestion that the National Party underfunded social workers when it led the government for nine years, and said it would act over the pay gap.

"One of the things we would definitely have to do is to look around pay equity right across the workforce," Ngaro said.

"This has already happened now, this has now been put in place, you're going to have to now try to match that in the market somehow, in some way, that would have to be what we would do."

Oranga Tamariki was approached for input.

Minister Tracey Martin was approached for comment.