19 Jun 2018

National nursing strike looms: 'People are fed up'

7:49 am on 19 June 2018

As the prospect of the first national nursing strike in 30 years looms, nurses believe they have the public's support - despite rejecting a half a billion dollar pay offer.

Hospitals could be left with a skeleton staff as nurses gear up to walk off the job next month. And while nurses are fearful of leaving their patients with limited care, they feel they have been left no choice.

The latest offer includes increases of between nine and 15 percent to be rolled out over 18 months.

It nearly doubles the offer from DHBs in February and is worth more than half a billion dollars but nurses say the benefits haven't been spread across the sector.

Kathleen, who has worked as a nurse for eight years, said she would have benefited from the DHBs' offer of a 15 percent pay rise.

But, she said the deal would leave junior colleagues in the cold.

"It wasn't a great pay rise for them and even if we had got that, they would have still gone looking overseas for more money."

Many young nurses she worked with have contemplated moving to Australia to earn enough money to buy a home in New Zealand, she said.

Much of the public did not understand what extreme pressure nurses were under, she said, until they entered a hospital.

"We are always missing lunch-breaks, on our feet for eight hours a day, doing shift work - it's exhausting."

Kathleen works almost every weekend, which limits any social life.

She said nurses were also regularly abused and attacked while working.

"We get yelled at all the time, I was kicked yesterday.

"People are fed up. We have a degree and a student loan, we want to live a comfortable life and not be living pay cheque to pay cheque," she said.

NZNO industrial services manager Cee Payne.

NZNO industrial services manager Cee Payne said yesterday for those who were not registered nurses at the top of the scale the pay offer was only 3 percent a year. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Kathleen said patients had been overwhelmingly supportive of the proposed strike action - the first national nursing strike since 1989.

Others, who were not patients, tended to be less supportive, she said, adding that some thought rejecting a 15 percent pay rise was greedy.

But they did not realise how long it had been since nurses had a pay rise, she said.

All elective and non-urgent services would stop during the strike, leaving just emergency care intact.

Nurses would feel nervous leaving their patients for a day but striking might be their only remaining option, Kathleen said.

Hawke's Bay Hospital emergency department doctor Scott Boyes said nurses were vital to making hospitals run smoothly.

A lot of the efficiencies in the services would be tested during their strike, he said, but their non-nursing colleagues supported them.

A strike of such magnitude has been a long time coming, he said.

"There's ever increasing demand, the patients are more complex, the hours they work are very strenuous."

DHBs spokesperson Helen Mason said said nurses were highly valued and the current offer represented that.

Ms Mason said the offer they had received was higher than offers made to other workforces. "Which I think really recognises the special workforce and the contribution that they make. I think that half a billion dollars for this workforce is a very, very good deal."

Ms Mason told Morning Report there was no more money available with this offer.

With the first offer, DHBs had gone as far as they were able to go and this latest offer was possible because the Ministry of Health had made available additional funding, she said.

Ms Mason said it was a good offer, with an increase for the most experienced nurses in basic pay of $10,000 in the full time base rate over the period of the offer.

The offer included a focus on the safe staffing programme, care capacity demand management and a commitment to work on pay equity, she said.

DHBs were still optimistic settlement could be reached to avert strikes but were "planning for the worst".

"If industrial action does go ahead we will need to defer and reschedule non-essential services. Emergency and essential services will be available."

Nurses Organisation industrial services manager Cee Payne said additional funding would be needed to reach a settlement.

The current offer left many members with a 3 percent a year offer over three years, and created pay distortions, she said.

"There is an acute shortage of nurses, and the only way to get those nurses into the country, to keep them in the country to maintain our workforce is to make sure the pay is right."

Health Minister David Clark was disappointed nurses rejected the offer but said the government was committed to funding 500 extra nurses regardless of the settlement outcome.

The two proposed 24-hour strikes are scheduled to take place on 5 and 12 July.

In the meantime, the union is taking members' feedback to the DHB on Monday to enter into urgent talks and there will be a last-ditch effort to resolve the dispute and avert strike action.