30 Jul 2021

Health Minister Andrew Little responds after nurses reject pay offer

12:34 pm on 30 July 2021

Health Minister Andrew Little spoke to media after nurses revealed yesterday they had rejected the government's latest pay offer and planned strikes would go ahead.

Watch Little respond here:

Little said he wanted to be very clear that the proposal put to the nurses, was one proposed by the unions, so the deal nurses have rejected is one put to them by their own union.

He said he has heard the complaints of nurses including low staffing and increasing demands on them.

"The government acknowledges the stress and despair these circumstances have caused and we are committed to fixing it."

He said the latest pay offer would have put an extra $13,000 over the next year alone into the pockets of every full-time employee covered by the collective agreement.

He also said he has been driving officials hard to get a pay equity claim on the table and the delay is one of the nurses' main complaints.

"The first part of the proposal nurses voted on was to lift base pay rates by $1800 a year plus a lump-sum payment of $1200 ... the second part was an advance on the settlement of the pay equity claim, a $4000 a year pay rise and a lump-sum payment of $6000."

He said that meant up to $5800 a year pay increase and a lump sum payment of over $7200.

He said the final pay equity deal would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year and agencies are fully committed to completing the technical work. "We must get it right," he says.

"The $408m pay proposal that nurses rejected would have made a real difference to their bank accounts now and, subject to negotiations, we should deliver true pay equity later this year or by early next year."

He said while the government acknowledges that it and DHBs had not managed to reach the safe staffing levels committed to through the Care Capacity Demand Management (CCDM) system brought in three years ago which was due for completion on 30 June this year.

However, he said the clause in the offer relating to safe staffing - which nurses described as vague - includes a commitment to investigating why only half the 20 DHBs have met the requirements.

He said the commitments in the CCDM are "already enforceable" and there is an accountability mechanism for it.

He said the original proposal for referring every incidence of short staffing to the Employment Relations Authority or Employment Court would take months to process for each complaints, would be impractical and would not fix the problem.

"These strikes would be hugely disruptive to public health services, and to the people who need them."

He said it's entirely the decision of the union members, and the bargaining over the past 14 months has been about both safe staffing and pay.

"The government believes the proposal to settle the collective agreement addresses all the issues the Nurses Organisation has raised in negotiations and was realistic and practical, especially when you consider we are just weeks away from making an offer on pay equity."

"We've made very clear, very firm commitments in relation to the safe staffing, in relation to recruitment and in relation to the fair pay."

"I'm not entitled to reach breaking point or to walk away, this is important." He said he remains determined to genuinely fulfil the commitments but understands the nurses' frustration over the failure to meet commitments made in negotiations three years ago.

He said DHBs are their own independent legal entities and enter into their own negotiations. "It is for them to meet their obligations. As minister I can't take action against the DHBs. I can insist that officials drive the DHBs very hard."

One of the benefits of proposed reforms would be getting consistency about employment management across the country through one organisation rather than 20 separate ones.

"It's for the DHBs to implement that and as we know on a range of things getting consistent implementation has been a big challenge."

He said the priority for the government right now is to work on the pay equity claim. He could also quickly get a review of staffing under way, he said.

He said his expectation is negotiation will happen before the next planned strike.

"The negotiations have taken a long time and I have very clearly heard the mood of the nurses."

He said the nurses organisation came to the government with the latest proposal but said "we don't' want to be held to it if it doesn't fly".

Asked if the government is willing to put more money on the table for nurses, Little said they already are through the pay equity negotiations.

"The magnitude of the increase is going to be significant ... when the pay equity claim comes to be dealt with it will mean a significant pay increase for nurses and we are prepared for that."

The Nurses Organisation union (NZNO) this month agreed to take the government's offer to its members, putting a hold on an eight-hour strike planned for 19 August and a 24-hour strike on 9 September.

Unions are involved every step of the way in the pay equity negotiations also, he said.

Another 24-hour strike which had been planned for yesterday did not go ahead as nurses considered the offer, but members voted it down in a ballot that closed last night.

That latest pay offer included an advance payment on the expected fair pay deal the government had committed to, and committed to a ministerial review of staffing, a review of care demand management, and a recruitment campaign.

However, NZNO industrial advisor David Wait said the offer contained "too many ambiguities" including how DHBs would be held accountable if they could not provide safe staffing levels.

He told Morning Report today that similar promises had been broken before, and with hospitals operating at 120 percent of their capacity nurses wanted more certainty.

DHB spokesperson Jim Green said the addition of 3000 nurses to the workforce showed their commitment to making it work. He said DHBs wanted to hear more about solutions from nurses before the strikes took place.

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