30 Sep 2022

Nurses refusing extra shifts may 'put pressure on an already stretched system'

11:17 am on 30 September 2022
Nurses rally for fair pay near the Bridge of Remembrance

Nurses rally for fair pay in August last year. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Doctors are expecting widespread disruption at hospitals if nurses refuse extra shifts next week.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation is calling on its 35,000 members who work in hospitals to turn down requests to work extra shifts next week because of a dispute over how they are compensated for them.

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

Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton said senior doctors back the nurses, although many services will take a hit.

She said there will be fewer elective surgeries, and fewer people admitted to wards.

Dalton said there was no doubt the strike was going to put extra pressure on an already stretched system which could lead to patient and staff safety being compromised.

"One of our doctors who works in an emergency department also noted that he can't remember the last time he worked a shift that wasn't short-staffed and that is even with nurses picking up additional shifts," she said.

Whangārei emergency nurse and union delegate Rachel Thorn told Morning Report that the idea that staffing is a winter or a Covid problem is just not correct.

She said Te Whatu Ora was ignoring the fact nurses were still going above and beyond and that nurses have had little choice but to work additional hours for a long time.

"This issue is not a winter issue. It's something that has been going on for a long time in many parts of the country," she said.

Yesterday in a letter to the union, Te Whatu Ora - Health NZ head of people Rosemary Clements said the nurses refusal to take on extra shifts was likely an unlawful strike.

Dalton told Morning Report that she was surprised to hear the health agency labelling the strike action potentially unlawful.

"Additional shifts are exactly as described. They are not part of the nurses or any healthcare workers normal job size or workload. They are extras that people are free to pick up or not pick up, if they choose on top of their regular workload," she said.

Dalton said in her view choosing not to pick up extra work would not be strike action.

Dalton said it highlighted the extent to which the health system relied on nurses to do more than their normal workload on a regular basis.

Te Whatu Ora - Health NZ declined to speak on Morning Report today.

At a virtual hui yesterday, chief executive Margie Apa said she was frustrated and disappointed at plans for nurses to refuse to do extra shifts.

She said it was up to nurses to decide what they would do and she knew that they would make the best choice for their families, their patients and their communities.

Health Minister Andrew Little is staying out of the dispute and said payments were discretionary and any dispute over them was between the unions at the Health NZ - Te Whatu Ora management.