The government is being warned of a potential crisis in mental health as community workers leave for higher pay in the aged care and disability sectors.
E tū and the Public Service Association filed an equal pay claim with the Employment Relations Authority last month after community mental health workers were left out of the government's $2 billion pay equity settlement for workers in the aged care and disability settlement.
Those working in that sector received a pay rise last week - people who were on the minimum wage of $15.75 are now earning $19.
But some mental health workers are earning far less than that.
Joshua Gardiner loves his work, but he's seriously considering following his colleagues, who've already quit their jobs in mental health and secured positions in aged care.
"My day is constant reassurance, you know, my clients have up to 30 or 40 different delusions a day that they believe are very real," the Christchurch man says.
"I'm their teacher, I'm their worker, I'm their friend - the whole lot. I've got to look out for them when they are unwell, I've got to spot triggers and I've got to deal with it, it's all one-on-one support."
He is paid $17 an hour and often works 96 hours a fortnight.
With two level four certificates in human services and mental health and addictions, he would be paid $23.50 an hour if he worked in the aged care and disability sector. If he did the same hours, he'd earn more than $13,000 extra a year.
"There's actually people through other agencies who have already left. People are doing it because they have to, because we're not living a living wage, and an extra $5 an hour is huge to a pay check."
Unions E tū and the Public Service Association and sector representatives are urging the government to consider the claim with urgency, and warn of a crisis in the mental health sector if they don't.
Sally Pitts-Brown is the CEO of Pathways, which provides a range of community-based mental health services. She says her staff work in stressful conditions, and now have more options to work elsewhere for significantly more pay.
"I think we are absolutely heading into a crisis. The impact of the settlement on the other sectors has had a huge impact, and none of us understand why mental health and addictions was excluded because it was intentionally in the package and then it got excluded."
Ms Pitts-Brown says while it's early days and none of her staff have left yet, they've indicated they're considering doing so.
"Money is tight and money is really, really important. Especially for our staff who live in Auckland where there are already all the additional challenges, um yeah, it's creating a real dilemma for them. What we are already seeing is an impact on our ability to recruit."
The Ministry of Health says mental health workers were excluded after all settlement parties agreed. While it is not party to the claim, it's involved in negotiations after being invited by the unions and employers to participate.
E tū Assistant National Secretary John Ryall estimates between 3000 and 4000 people are affected by the claim, which asks for exactly the same pay - no more, no less - than what those in the aged care and disability sector now receive.
He says the union only agreed to exclude mental health workers as they felt they had no choice in the decision. The government has a responsibility to financially contribute towards this claim, but is afraid it won't be settled before the election.
"This matter can't be left for months to drag on, something needs to be done about it quickly because the mental health services are already in crisis, and this is going to add further to it."
The Employment Relations Authority said it couldn't comment on the progress of specific cases. However, it said if the matter isn't resolved in mediation, then an authority member would set an investigation meeting, which are generally set three or more months in advance and take three months to complete.
"The decision about whether a matter is granted urgency is up to the Authority Member. If they decide it is necessary they can reduce any of the timeframes mentioned above, however it is extremely unlikely a matter of this complexity would be dealt with quickly."
With a family to care for, community mental health worker Joshua Gardiner says he can't ignore an extra $10,000 or more a year and will have to leave if a settlement isn't reached soon. And he warns he won't be the only one to do so.
"I feel that my clients are going to be left behind and their needs will not be met at all. I can go get another job, you know. It's the clients and the clients' families that are going to be left out."