29 Sep 2022

Nurses warned plan to turn down extra shifts next week likely illegal

5:42 am on 29 September 2022
The Auckland nurses protest on 9 June 2021.

About 30,000 nurses, midwives and other health workers took to the streets in June last year to protest their pay and working conditions. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Nurses around the country are set to turn down all extra shifts next week but the new health authority is warning them it is likely an illegal strike.

A special winter bonus of $100 a shift is set to end tomorrow and the biggest union, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, wants to negotiate an ongoing payment system to reflect the pressure on nurses still working extra hours.

Nurses Organisation chief executive Paul Goulter wrote to all 35,000 of its members who worked for Te Whatu Ora / Health NZ, calling on them to only work the shifts they were contracted for next week, unless already rostered on.

There had been strong support for the move, he said.

Whangārei emergency nurse and union delegate Rachel Thorn said Te Whatu Ora was ignoring the fact nurses were still going above and beyond even though winter was over.

"They're saying that we're going back to business as usual on the first of October which we know is not going to be anything like business as usual," she said.

There had been pressure on nurses in her department to work extra hours since January, she said.

"They're demanding, requesting, asking, texting, calling, Facebook messaging nurses to do extra hours because they need us to do those hours to keep the department safe," she said.

Goulter said nurses were still propping up the health system even though winter was over.

"They are highly annoyed at the whole process and at this very time when they are most under the pump because of what's happened over winter and the overall shortage of nurses... to have these sort of things break out is just completely not useful at all," he said.

In a letter to the union, Te Whatu Ora head of people Rosemary Clements said the move was likely an unlawful strike.

That was because it was a refusal to do something that was a normal part of the job.

"Nonetheless, in recognition of the outstanding contribution that NZNO members have made over the last several months, we do not wish to take a litigious approach to this issue," she said.

In a written response to RNZ she said the winter payments were instigated by Te Whatu Ora and the union was consulted.

"The payments were an extraordinary step in response to an extraordinary situation, namely excessive staff shortages due to Covid-19 illnesses, and it was made clear at the time they would apply only between 1 July to 30 September 2022," she said.

Adding to the complexity over compensation for extra shifts was the fact there were different contracts for nurses depending on where they worked - a hangover from the 20 different district health boards that employed them before the change to Te Whatu Ora in July.

Nurse Rachel Thorn said before the winter payment her team got only normal rates for working an additional shift, but some in other hospitals got penal rates.

Doctors at Whangārei Hospital had proportionately higher incentives for working extra too, she said.

Nurses who took on extra shifts often had extra expenses like childcare or for help caring for elderly parents.

Her team had been saying no to some shifts outside their contracted hours since July, inspiring the nationwide action.

Health staff in many hospitals around the country have said they were noticing little or no drop off in workload since the Covid and flu outbreaks.

Last night, Christchurch Hospital said it was over capacity and urged people to stay away from its emergency department unless they needed genuine emergency care.

Thorn said staffing problems did not start with winter - and would not end there.

It was not up to nurses to solve them by plugging gaps indefinitely and they were sick of being treated like "naughty children" for wanting fair pay, she said.

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