St John paramedics gutted as promised pay boost cancelled

It is planning to slash 100 jobs.
It is planning to slash 100 jobs. Photo credit: Getty.

By Nita Blake-Persen of RNZ

St John paramedics say they're absolutely gutted that their employer has backtracked on its promise to pay weekend and overnight shift rates.

The ambulance service says it's facing a large deficit for the coming year, with COVID-19 cutting its fundraising and commercial incomes.

St John, which is 70 percent government-funded, announced on Wednesday it needed to claw back $30 million over the next financial year.

It's now planning on slashing 100 jobs to save money and paramedics will miss out on the penal rates they fought for during last year's industrial action.

Chief executive Peter Bradley said the executive team will also be reduced, personal cars are going, and it's freezing pay increases for those in senior roles.

"We won't be filling some vacancies as people leave, and we will leave some shifts uncovered, but overall we can reassure the public that those people that require an ambulance in a life-threatening emergency will receive an ambulance as quickly as ever before."

But the crews manning those ambulances said it was a story they'd heard many times before.

One paramedic told RNZ he and his colleagues were already underpaid and penal rates, which were expected to be 25 percent on top of their hourly pay, they were falling further behind other health professionals.

"I'd be on about $65,000 a year after 20 years work - quite a number of my colleagues are on the minimum wage and those colleagues were with me at the coalface, facing danger, helping out the community and they're paid the minimum wage which I think is disgusting."

Another paramedic RNZ spoke to said it was incredibly disappointing, especially after a stressful few months dealing with the threat of COVID-19.

"I'm 65, on the road my first job out to a South African, just come off the plane, 25 hours in and out of airports... I'm 65, is this it for me? Is this the last one?"

Neither of the ambulance officers want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, but they were furious to hear that penal rates, which cover weekend and night shifts, were under threat with St John feeling the financial pinch.

"It's the same bull s**t that's been going on for years and years and years - they promise you something and then just to shut you up, so the strike's over, and then they take it away from ya. It just guts me.

"Is this the right company we're working for, they don't know what the books look like? What's going on?"

First Union ambulance coordinator Sarah Stone said members were fed up and at breaking point.

"The reason ambulance officers feel so strongly about this clause and the way they're being treated is this is the same story we hear at bargaining time and time again - this is what we've heard for the last 10 or 15 years."

St John has been paying staff a five percent unsociable hours shift allowance since the end of last year - that was an interim measure until the penal rates came into effect.

In a statement, St John Ambulance Director of Operations Dan Ohs said since the penal rates were proposed in 2019, an independent review into the market conditions had advised an alternative approach.

"Further it is well understood that the financial situation facing St John has significantly worsened since then. For these reasons we advised the union that we believe it would be unreasonable for them to withhold their consent to a different arrangement."

Paramedics RNZ has spoken to say if St John can't balance its books, then a new national set-up needed to be brought in and funded 100 percent.

"Given that we gave so much during COVID - we put ourselves out there and exposed ourselves and our families to danger - it would be nice to be recognised for what we did, as opposed to being punished in some way by having our shift rates taken off us."