Health Minister Andrew Little has revealed full-time nurses were offered an extra $13,000 over the next year alone during the latest negotiations.
But nurses rejected the offer, not so much because of the pay, but because of "vague promises" to address staff shortages, which the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) say has left them feeling "unsafe at work".
The NZNO, which represents nurses paid by District Health Boards (DHBs), voted by a clear majority on Thursday to reject the latest pay offer from the Government, which could lead to more strike action.
About 30,000 nurses walked off the job last month for eight hours after negotiations with DHBs turned sour. NZNO asked for a 17 percent increase, but the Government said it couldn't afford it.
Earlier this month, Little was pleased when nurses backed down on planned strike action, to return to the negotiation table. They had planned to hold strikes in July, August and September.
That strike action could be back on the agenda if the Government doesn't address nurses' primary concerns about work safety.
NZNO lead advocate David Wait said that, while the DHBs had made promising moves on pay, the offer contained too many ambiguities.
"Members have been clear from the beginning that their safety at work and the safety of their patients is a priority, and that is where they most deserve certainty," he said.
"Better pay will make nursing more attractive, but it is not clear how the DHBs will be held accountable if they do not provide safe staffing. Nurses don't want more vague promises that the problem will be fixed in the future - which is what we have received once again."
The NZNO says strikes are planned for August 19, and September 9 and 10, unless an "acceptable" offer is made.
What did the offer include?
The Government has put forward a $408 million pay proposal, which included a lift to base pay rates by $1800 a year, plus a lump-sum payment of $1200.
The second part was an advance on the settlement of the ongoing pay-equity claims, a $4000-a-year pay rise and a lump-sum payment of $6000.
Together, that adds up to a $5800-a-year pay rise and a lump-sum payment of $7200 - altogether, $13,000 over the next year.
The NZEO acknowledges the latest pay offer is "promising", but says members are now mainly concerned about safe staffing levels.
The Government and DHBs committed to safe staffing levels through CCDM (Care Capacity Demand Management) three years ago. Implementation was due for completion across all DHBs by 30 June this year. But this has not happened.
"No doubt the nurses will say three years ago we committed to pay equity, three years ago we committed to safe staffing levels, and that hasn't been fully honoured," Little told reporters on Friday.
"I might say, 10 DHBs have fully implemented CCDM, some nurses will say there's variable quality of that, there are another 10 DHBs that are yet to complete, but some of those DHBs are substantially the way through completion.
"I totally understand the frustration. We have to make commitments to put right the situation that the nurses are extremely concerned about."
But Little also said it was "surprising" the offer was rejected by the NZNO, given it was "developed by their own negotiating team".
The offer included the promise of a ministerial investigation into why the safe-staffing agreement reached in 2008 has been fully implemented at only 10 of the 20 DHBs, as well as $5 million to make sure CCDM is rolled out at the remaining DHBs.
The Government also promised a joint recruitment campaign between the Ministry of Health and the NZNO to fill the 1450 nurse vacancies across the country. But as Newshub revealed last week, there are more than 1000 registered doctors and nurses stuck in the frozen immigration queue.
The Government also committed to ensuring additional nurses are available on shifts for immediate deployment when unforeseen workload pressures arise.
Little says strike action would be "hugely disruptive to public health services, and to the people who need them", and is urging nurses to be patient as the Government goes into further negotiations.