Blow for nurses as Jacinda Ardern says she 'can't reward everyone' who worked hard during COVID-19

Tensions are continuing to escalate as ongoing pay negotiations with the nursing workforce fail to reach a resolution, with the Prime Minister arguing she isn't in a position to reward everyone who rolled up their sleeves during the pandemic.

The offer currently on the table is an annualised increase of roughly 1.4 percent - less than a tenth of the 17 percent bump the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) has been pushing for in their multi-employer collective agreement negotiations, which began last year.

"Members are angry and frustrated at the first DHB offer received last month," NZNO industrial advisor David Wait said last week.

"That would have given most members little more than 1.38 percent, just under the rate of inflation. This is despite the incredible sacrifices they made in 2020 to keep the country safe from COVID-19."

On Friday, the dispute reached boiling point as nurses voted to take industrial action, with an eight-hour strike scheduled for June 9 in protest of the offer - which one nurse practitioner called "an April Fool's joke" under the condition of anonymity.

But Prime Minister Ardern is remaining tight-lipped on the ongoing talks, telling The AM Show on Monday that she won't be engaging in any back-and-forth regarding the finer details of the negotiations. 

"You know that I'm not going to get into too much of a discussion [about] a negotiation involving DHBs and our nursing workforce, because they are in the middle of negotiations," she said.

"One thing I will say - and this hasn't been talked about as much, perhaps - at the same time, we need to keep making progress on pay equity for our nursing workforce. It was something we were talking about last time we were at the table. I'd like to see us move more quickly on those talks."

Pay equity refers to having the same or similar pay for different jobs where the work is of equal worth or value. As defined by the NZNO, if one occupation has the same challenges and required skills and educational level as another occupation, they should be paid the same.

Pay equity differs from equal pay, which refers to the same pay for two people who are doing the same job regardless of their gender (or any other factor).

Stock image of nurse with her arms crossed
Nurses will take industrial action on June 9 in protest of the DHB offer, which put forward an increase of around 1.38 percent. Photo credit: Getty Images

Last month, DHB negotiation spokesperson Dale Olliff told Newshub the last pay round focused on those at the top of the pay scale, with some nurses getting increases of $10,000.

This offer is weighted towards those at the lower end, with healthcare assistants (HCAs) getting up to an 11 percent increase - although Wait argued that without the offer, some HCAs wouldn't have even been paid at the Government's new minimum wage.

Olliff said a pay equity settlement expected later this year will give the nurses a financial boost, and will be back-dated.

But registered nurse Alice McKenzie told Newshub pay equity has taken too long.

"It was a carrot held out that was supposed to solve everything, and was pushed as [something that] was definitely happening at the end of 2019."

Speaking to The AM Show, Ardern confirmed the Government is still committed to achieving pay equity for the nursing workforce, but reiterated that the current negotiations are not centred on that goal.

"There's still talks around that. I want us to expedite [that] - it's on all of us," she said.

"[The offer] is not a pay equity offer, just to be clear - that's general pay negotiations. I'm not going to get into the back-and-forth on some of the details. When we're in a negotiation, I do try to be careful because we have to negotiate in good faith, so that's why I'm being cautious about the talks as they stand."

'COVID has cost this country a lot'

When host Duncan Garner grilled Ardern as to why nurses hadn't been given a higher offer - particularly post-COVID - the Prime Minister acknowledged the workforce deserved better. 

"That's one of things we were talking about when we put out the pay guidance a couple of weeks ago. The first response was that this doesn't recognise the work of so many in response to COVID - people have worked so hard, they have, and that includes in our core public sector, the people I work with everyday as well," she said, referencing the Government's wage freeze announcement earlier this month. 

"But why can't we be kind?" Garner pressed.

"This is the difficulty of having this job. I also have to have an eye to whether or not everything we do is sustainable, and I have to have an eye to issues like inequality and poverty - and there's only so much capacity we have right now," Ardern said.

"COVID has cost this country a lot. As much as I would wish to be in a position to be able to reward everyone who has worked so hard, I have to keep that in mind as well - I can't."

Nurses will commence their eight-hour strike at 11am on June 9, which will run to 7pm. The strike will include nurses involved in the vaccination effort, but not those working in managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Wait says the best alternative would be for the DHBs and Government to come up with an acceptable offer, which would recognise the contribution nurses have made before and since the pandemic.