11 Apr 2020

Covid-19: Health workers left struggling to pay the rent

5:30 pm on 11 April 2020

For five years, Claire* has been helping hospital patients who can't help themselves.

Male nurse taking pulse of senior patient at hospital.

Photo: 123rf.com

"I will give them a wash or shower, feed them their meals when they can't manage it. I love helping."

Claire is a healthcare assistant, on a 'casual' contract. Before Covid-19 struck she was working 75 hours a fortnight without fail.

Now her hours are down to less than half that. There is a lot to worry about.

"I'm supposed to be working today but there is nothing. My grandson and daughter are staying with me and I need to feed them."

Claire is renting two bedrooms in a friend's house. She's asked her to reduce the fortnightly rent from $850 to $500.

"I have had to transfer money from my small savings to pay the rent. It's very stressful. It's hard."

Claire thought she would be able to get the wage subsidy but her bosses say it is not an option because government-funded organisations are excluded. It's a loophole many find themselves stuck in.

She doesn't know what she's going to do.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Lily* is in a very similar situation. She was regularly working four days a week in a hospital on a casual contract, but she hasn't had any work since the lockdown began.

Her husband still has a job, which is a blessing, but they have bills to pay.

"We're just trying to get by with what we have."

She is working towards becoming a nurse, as she was before she arrived in New Zealand.

"We asked about the wage subsidy but they said it's not possible for us because we work for the government. We were thinking that because we work for the government we would be looked after."

Lily has tried talking to Work and Income but they refer her to charity organisations and back to her employer. Her workplace refers her back to Work and Income. It's dizzying.

"I'm very disappointed if this is how essential workers are being treated."

Matt* was working five days a week at a hospital but in the last fortnight he has worked a third of his normal hours.

He has two children, who are also essential workers. On the days he has worked, there hasn't been enough personal protection equipment.

"I don't know what is going to happen to us. I truly can't afford to pay the rent now let alone all the other bills.

"It seems wrong. They should be giving us proper support because we work in healthcare."

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

New Zealand Nurses Organisation industrial adviser David Wait said it was trying to resolve similar situations for 77 of its members at the Auckland District Health Board alone, but hundreds of people were affected.

"It is a problem across the whole district health board (DHB) system."

Wait said a small but significant part of the health workforce worked flexibly. That had benefited organisations and staff but the hours had become so regular they were not truly casual arrangements any more.

He cited the example of a nurse who had spent 13 years working every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Her hours had now been reduced to one day a week.

Wait said there were a number of issues as a result. Firstly, people's legal rights were affected.

"She's almost certainly not a casual employee so she has a legal right to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday."

Wait said putting these "casual" staff under financial pressure now was a bad idea.

"These are the pool of people we are going to need to help look after us when things get really gnarly."

It also seemed an odd thing to be doing while advertising for former DHB staff to return to work, he said.

The workers' ineligibility to get the wage subsidy at such a time was "a double-whammy".

"They (DHBs) should have a principled position of supporting these workers. We have been working nationally to ensure there is some income in place for these people. We think it is short-sighted to do otherwise."

Wait said progress was difficult. As a result, the union was going through the painful process of asking for individual timesheets and wage information to help members. He acknowledged if that was the solution it could take months to resolve.

"The fall back position is legal action against DHBs and that is a long and unsatisfactory process."

A fact sheet prepared for staff by health officials says the DHBs and Health Ministry are "very aware of the difficult and uncertain position our casual workforce is facing at this challenging time".

"You should ask your DHB/manager(s) whether they are aware of other employment opportunities that would be suitable for you such as working in Community Based Assessment Centre or Healthline work.

"You might also consider whether there are more secure employment opportunities at your DHB including available permanent or fixed-term arrangements."

It said if staff were in need of financial assistance they should contact Work and Income.

*The workers' names have been changed.

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