Maternity services will be less affected than other hospital services if the July 5 strike goes ahead as most midwives are not NZNO members, says the midwifery union MERAS.

Caroline Conroy, the co-leader of MERAS (the Midwifery Employee Representation and Advisory Service) says the union has now moved from representing the “majority” to “most” of the 20 district health boards’ about 1400 midwives.

So most hospital midwives would not be striking but how affected maternity services were by the strike would differ from DHB to DHB, said Conroy. A shortage of midwives, particularly in some of the larger maternity units, had meant that some DHBs had ‘backfilled’ some vacancies with nurses.

But Conroy said birthing women should be assured that most hospital midwives would be working and the self-employed lead maternity carer (LMC) midwives would also be working as usual.

Conroy said the College of Midwives’ affiliated MERAS was fully supportive of NZNO members taking strike action and understood the frustration with the high workloads and minimal pay increases over the past decade. She said it was advising its members to do their normal work in their normal hours but they may be redeployed to other maternity roles if their usual work area is closed for the day. She says midwives legally could not work outside their maternity scope of practice. Conroy said it was also important to clarify that MERAS members, as non-NZNO midwives, were legally unable to join the strike, which had been an issue raised at some maternity units.

The MERAS midwifery MECA expired at the same time as NZNO MECA, the end of July last year, and is now stalled – like other settlements linked to the precedent-setting NZNO MECA – waiting for the impasse to be resolved and a pay benchmark to be set.

Conroy said talks started last year and it worked through a number of minor changes but the two parties last met in late May and negotiations were now on hold waiting for the NZNO to settle with the DHBs.

She said it had guaranteed its members “at least” the equivalent pay scale of that agreed to by NZNO but a major plank of MERAS’s current negotiations was seeking a pay differential between DHB core midwives and nurses. At present the NZNO MECA has nurses and midwives with the same years’ experience are on the same pay scale which Conroy said had been a ‘frustration’ for midwives.

“I think one of the biggest issues we have is to have the hospitals at last understand that midwifery is quite a different profession to nursing and has quite a different scope of practice – and are not nurses by another name.”

She said whether that differential should be via a different scale for midwives or some other form were details still under discussion.

Core midwives employed by District Health Boards have – like their self-employed  lead maternity carer (LMC) colleagues – also lodged a pay equity claim under the pay equity legislation separate to their current MECA round negotiations.

LMC midwives were ‘underwhelmed’ by the long awaited new midwifery funding announced in the May Budget with some expresssing that it was too little too late to keep some struggling self-employed midwives in the profession.

Conroy noted earlier this year that the reduction in self-employed midwives in some areas around the country put more pressure on DHB services and midwives to ensure local women were still able to receive maternity care.

She said at the time that MERAS has been working closely with individual maternity services over the last two years to address issues of recruitment and retention and while some managers were receptive to the ideas of their midwifery workforce, others were not.

“Even in maternity units without midwifery vacancies the current budgeted staffing levels are often inadequate to meet the unpredictable workload seen in maternity,” Conroy said.

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