Health workers up in arms over low pay, union says strike going ahead after lack of DHB offer

A health worker forced to take on two jobs to get by says he could be paid more at KFC than he's currently getting in his critical hospital role.

"I have been in the DHB for 12 years. I am just making $25.40 an hour, whereas a shift supervisor at KFC makes $27 an hour," Steve Grant says. 

Thousands of allied health workers from across more than 70 professions are ready to walk off the job on Monday after the Public Service Association (PSA) says District Health Boards (DHB)s failed to meet their commitment to present a pay offer after a months-long dispute.

Negotiations between the health boards and the union have been going on for 18 months, with the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) earlier this year releasing a confidential report with recommendations for a path forward.

Will Matthews, a PSA organiser and spokesperson on the issue, says workers were expecting a response from DHBs this week ahead of the planned industrial action scheduled for Monday. 

But no offer has yet been made by the DHBs, he told AM.

"It's been 18 months since we started negotiations, it's been two weeks since the ERA released recommendations on how we can resolve the dispute. It's been a week since the DHBs said they would get us an offer this week. It's Friday now and they have failed to meet their commitment," Matthews said.

"It takes more time than just a day to call off a strike of 10,000 health workers. It's going to take something pretty drastic now to call these strikes off. We are well past the 11th hour."

Affected workers - which include sterile science technicians, alcohol and drug clinicians and social workers  - have had enough, Matthews said. 

"The trust that they have in their employers has been shattered."

These people have been at the core of the health system and New Zealand's response to COVID-19, he said.

"They have been overworked, underpaid and undervalued for far too long."

Grant, a sterile sciences technician, told AM said his department is one of the lowest-paid. Grant and his colleagues process medical equipment and instruments in theatres to make sure they are ready for the next operation and won't infect the next patient.

Those at the top of department "get paid less than at KFC" and trainees get barely above minimum wage, he said. 

Grant works a second job as security at a bar to get by on, which he says pay a better hourly rate than his hospital role. People in his department also work overtime "just to make ends meet".

"The DHBs rely on us, they rely on that goodwill to fulfill that over time. That is gone. That is gone now," he said.

Because of the low pay, Grant says staff can't be recruited or retained. About half of his department are trainees with a lack of experience, he says.

"In my DHB, we are budgeted for 23 staff and we have 13. Out of that 13, six of those are trainees with just on a year or less experience. So we have only got six qualified staff."

So what's Matthew's message to DHBs?

"Frankly, it is unbelievable that we are now at this stage after 18 months. Our message, not only to the DHBs but the Ministry of Health, is that six weeks out from generational health reforms coming into effect on July 1, they need to consider what they want their legacy to be," he said.

"Is it those generational health reforms or is it being badly exposed on their treatment of the same workers who have just shepherded us through two years of a COVID-19 crisis."

In a statement reported by media earlier this week, Hawke's Bay DHB chief executive and reported spokesperson for the DHBs on the dispute matter, Keriana Brooking, said DHBs were reviewing the ERA's recommendations "with urgency".

She said DHBs "hope to finalise a formal offer of settlement for PSA members to consider as soon as possible".

"We have agreed some substantive improvements for this workforce in bargaining and appreciate the ERA's assistance which provides a way to approach the outstanding matters.

"DHBs and the PSA are both keen to address issues of low pay for this workforce and reaching an agreement to settle these pay talks so we can focus our efforts and energy on resolving the Allied Pay Equity claim for this group.

"We acknowledge bargaining has been protracted and both PSA members and DHBs have been waiting for some time.

"DHBs still hope to prevent further action next week and that the offer being finalised now will result in the lifting of the strike action."

Newshub has contacted the Ministry of Health and the Hawke's Bay DHB for comment.