Bay of Plenty DHB midwives will be re-joining the last two days of rolling strike action after a dispute over essential services saw their union withdraw strike notices for four days.

The fortnight of twice-a-day two hour rolling strike action got underway on November 22 across the 20 district health boards by 1155 public hospital midwives belonging to midwives’ union MERAS. The midwives had rejected the  20 DHBs’ offer over safe staffing concerns and as it would continue to keep registered midwives’ pay on par with registered nurses, despite different scopes of practice and training requirements.

The action ends on Wednesday December 5 when Jill Ovens, MERAS industrial co-leader, said midwives would take a National Day of Action with pickets at DHBs across the country before the union and DHBs returned to mediation on Friday. Midwives have reported that

A dispute with the Bay of Plenty District Health Board over the number of midwives required to be on standby to provide life preserving services (LPS) led to an Employment Relations Authority ruling and the union withdrawing strike notices for Friday to Monday.  Ovens said the Chief Medical Office had adjudicated reduced LPS requirements but the DHB only agreed for these to be implemented for the last two days of the strike action.

Karen Guilliland, chief executive of the MERAS-linked New Zealand College of Midwives said the College was “extremely disappointed” that the DHB had earlier demanded more midwives be available for LPS during the strike than normally rostered for the same shifts.

“As there is not the number of midwives available to work those two hours, this DHB is essentially removing the midwives’ legal right to strike,” said Guilliland.

The Bay of Plenty DHB had alleged that understaffing had created an unsafe situation during a strike period at the Whakatāne Hospital on the first weekend of the strike fortnight. Health board chief executive Helen Mason told the Bay of Plenty Times that the organisation respected midwives’ right to industrial action but at the same time the board’s priority was safety of mothers, babies and staff.  The Times said Mason did not specifically address questions about whether the staffing levels it had sought during strikes were higher than during normal shifts.

Guilliland said the whole point of the midwives’ strike action was to point out to all of the DHBs that the current staffing ratios are not safe but she was confident that midwives provided LPS during the rolling strikes.

The 20 DHBs’ spokesperson Jim Green has described the pay offer to MERAS as a “really, really good deal” that included an agreement to start implementing a separate pay equity claim for midwives from December 31 2019, which would likely lead to a pay differential between registered nurses and registered midwives.

Jill Ovens has responded by saying the pay equity process agreed to was for any pay equity agreement to be backdated to December 31 2019 – not that pay would change from that date. She said hospital employed midwives – having watched the elongated pay equity battle of their self-employed midwives colleagues, which was still not resolved – had little confidence that the pay equity process for employed midwives would be “completed any time soon”.

Guilliland  said she encouraged the 20 DHBs to address MERAS’s concerns, and support and talk to their midwives to find resolution. Appropriate funding of our maternity services and improved pay and conditions for midwives will ensure our world-leading maternity service continues to be able to deliver the excellent outcomes it does for our women and babies.

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