17 May 2019

St John paramedics say they’re overstretched, under pressure

7:39 pm on 17 May 2019

Documents released to Checkpoint under the Official Information Act have revealed the tensions between paramedics, their employer St John Ambulance, and the government, amid ongoing strike action.

St John Ambulance.

St John Ambulance. Photo: RNZ / Alex Perrotett

It shows the CEO of St John Ambulance is asking the government to lift funding from 70 to 95 percent in this month's budget, or some services will have to be stopped.

Following last year's loss of $13.5 million, Peter Bradley says staff are overstretched, under pressure, and struggling.

Dorothy Johnston is an emergency paramedic with more than 25 years' experience.

She said she has never worked harder, and it's getting dangerous for all.

"Your concentration is not as sharp, so we're having to drive in dangerous conditions," she said.

"We're driving fast, we're thinking about the job we're going to, what potentially could be wrong with this patient. Once we get there we have to concentrate on treating the patient, you can't make a mistake when it comes to people's lives."

"When you're finished that job and you're driving back to the station you are absolutely stuffed - seriously it has taken its toll on you."

And there's concerns that it's not just staff that are suffering.

Peter Bradley said despite a 26 percent increase in 111 over the last five years, paramedics only transported four percent more patients to DHB emergency departments over that period.

The demands come as First Union has cancelled a planned partial strike for tomorrow, after St John Ambulance lodged a court injunction.

The Union said staff break times were not being respected, making paramedics even more tired on the job.

Peter Bradley

Peter Bradley Photo: Supplied

Paramedics said they gave up taking their short ten-minute breaks, because the unpredictable nature of the job made that impossible.

That has made their two 30-minute breaks in their 12-hour shifts all the more important, but they regularly don't have their first break before seven hours into their shift, and often don't have the second break at all.

St John Ambulance said emergency situations mean that sometimes those breaks can't happen if there's a major emergency, but with stretched staff, Dorothy Johnston said those exceptions were happening almost daily.

"We do a very important job, we never turn a job down," she said.

"You don't just say 'no we're too tired, we can't go' and we do it, but please, running your ambulance service as a charity, it's ridiculous in this day and age."

First Union's Sarah Stone said the union gave notice of a strike back on 3 May, two weeks out from tomorrow, and had mediation via a conference call arranged for Tuesday this week, but St John lodged the injunction on Monday.

She said that was insulting.

"It was disappointing to say the least, that they haven't tried to find a way that we can work through it," she said.

"For us it's a reflection on how St John feels about its workforce, and what workers are hearing is that they don't care enough about them to give them their breaks."

But St John said the injunction was lodged in the interests of safety for its patients, and it completely disagreed on the timeline of events provided by First Union.

It said the injunction was lodged last Friday, and the union cancelled its strike notice on Monday, meaning the scheduled meeting was not needed.

St John said it was negotiating in good faith.

A message on the side of a St John Ambulance in Auckland.

Photo: RNZ / Leith Huffadine

The union and paramedics said any partial strike action would never be arranged in a way that would put patients at risk.

A St John Ambulance report from June 2018 says paying frontline staff cost $115m in the year to June 2018, and the organisation's fundraising efforts contributed $18m.

Mr Bradley said the whole funding model needed an urgent overhaul, and was no longer fit for purpose.

Mr Bradley urged David Clark to make the Ambulance Service a priority in this month's Wellbeing Budget.

But even if there is more money for St John, Sarah Stone from First Union said there was a real worry that it wouldn't get passed on to workers.

"Morale is so low, we've been in industrial action since last November," she said.

"And the messages that have come back from St John are so disappointing for their workers to hear."

In the meantime, burnt-out paramedics like Dorothy Johnston, who is currently on sick leave, are calling on the Finance Minister Grant Robertson to remember them as he plans his Wellbeing Budget.