Elective surgery was cancelled at Northland DHB today as anaesthetic technicians went ahead with strike action after mediation failed.

The 15 striking Whangārei Hospital technicians are represented by APEX and further strikes disrupting elective surgery are planned this month by anaesthetic technicians at two of the four other DHBs with which APEX is in negotiations.

The Public Service Association says most of the anaesthetic technicians in DHBs across the country are part of its Allied, Public Health and Technical collective agreement, with members due to start voting later this month on the DHB’s first offer since the PSA Allied health agreement expired around a year ago. The PSA also agreed that training issues were aggravating the recruitment and retention of anaesthetic technicians and were creating a major workforce crisis that needed to be fixed.

Dr Deborah Powell, APEX national secretary, said its advocates had been offered and rejected the same offer that DHBs had just settled with the PSA as it “wasn’t going to do the trick” with the severe recruitment and retention problems faced by its Northland DHB members.

The PSA offer mirrors the NZNO offer of the equivalent of a 9 per cent pay rise over the life of the contract (the equivalent of 3 per cent a year a year) plus a pro rata $2000 lump sum. Extra steps in the pay scale would see anaesthetic technicians currently on top of the additional progress step scale see their pay increase from the current $68,707 to $80,292 by August 2020, a 16.8 per cent pay increase.

Dr Nick Chamberlain, the chief executive of Northland DHB, said APEX had declined all offers tabled at yesterday’s mediation that had included innovative recruitment and retention initiatives on top of a flexible offer, shorter and longer terms, and the PSA Allied Health offer. Chamberlain said the technicians were a really important and highly valued workforce in which he had taken a special interest and had attended bargaining to emphasise their importance to the DHB.

Powell said Northland DHB and other DHBs were facing anaesthetic technician vacancies of 25-30 per cent due to a shortsighted failure by DHBs to train enough technicians, with the retention problem exacerbated by the pay gap between the DHB and private surgical hospital sector. Anaesthetic technicians are trained in-house in a three-year apprenticeship-type model, with Powell saying there was no shortage of applicants when training positions became available.

Ashok Shankar, a PSA bargaining advocate for the DHB sector, said “absolutely” there was a major supply line problem with anaesthetic technicians that needed to be fixed, as not enough were being trained.

“I think the whole way in which anaesthetic techs are trained, and the number that are recruited as trainees, needs to be relooked at – and until that is relooked at, the supply problem will never be solved.”

He said the current situation of training places being limited by the availability of DHB vacancies meant there was always going to be a lag and there would never build a pool of trained workers to recruit from.

Chamberlain said he acknowledged the shortages, which were nationwide, and fast-tracked recruitment by increasing the numbers of trainees from three to six. Emergency and life-preserving surgery was to continue today in agreement with APEX but 24 elective surgeries planned for today were cancelled and it would also effect some surgeries planned for tomorrow.

Hawke’s Bay DHB APEX anaesthetic technicians are due to strike on Friday and Lakes DHB and APEX are going into mediation on Monday to try and avert a strike on October 10.  Northland technicians have also issued a strike notice for Thursday October 11 and today issued a fortnight’s notice of a further strike on October 17. Negotiations are also ongoing between APEX and the Southern and MidCentral DHBs over their anaesthetic technician agreements.

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