23 Nov 2020

Health minister concerned about St John strike

From Checkpoint, 6:12 pm on 23 November 2020

The new Health Minister, Andrew Little, says he's very concerned about impending strike action by St John paramedics and is urging all involved to find a resolution.

Close up of a St John ambulance on a residential street.

Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Hundreds of St John paramedics who are First Union members will walk off the job on Wednesday and Saturday due to failed pay negotiations - including a broken promise to pay time-and-a-quarter for overnight and weekend work.

St John has said it cannot afford the penal rate, but is offering a pay settlement which it said was the largest in its history.

It included one-off settlement payments for all staff, penal rates of 15 percent and St John paying paramedics their registration fees.

Andrew Little said resolving the issues was a priority for him in his new portfolio and he hoped the strike action could be averted.

"I know that the parties are working very hard to try to resolve the issue - I know that health officials are helping them as well - I would just urge St John and the union involved to do everything they can to work their way through to try to find a resolution and not to potentially disrupt people later this week."

Little said he was aware of ongoing issues with St John funding the ambulance service.

"I think there's challenges for the health system generally to make sure the ambulances are supported, but we've got to make sure also that people are fairly rewarded, fairly managed and fairly treated in doing that work."

In addition to the employment dispute, St John has raised concerns about its ongoing financial position. It receives 70 percent of its funding through the government and relies on donations for the rest.

Chief executive Peter Bradley has told the government it would have to reduce services if it did not get an additional $80 million of funding in its next funding round.

"From next year, if there is no additional funding, we will have to reduce services with a reduction of the number of ambulances on the road.

"We need an additional $80 million a year to run a safe emergency ambulance service for the public of New Zealand and we are in constructive discussions with our funders over our new contract which applies from next July."

Little said that request had yet to be formally made, but he anticipated it would come up when new contracts were negotiated.

"But St John management runs St John - they make commitments, they've made commitments in previous collective agreements with their respective staff unions, and it's for St John and their management to honour their commitments that they've made."

First Union staff will begin their strike action at 6am on Wednesday, running for 24 hours. It will repeat the action on Saturday unless pay talks can reach a deal.

Life Preserving Services plans will be in place to ensure ambulances are safely run throughout.