A strike could still be on the cards unless the DHBs step up their pay offer above today’s Panel recommendations, which nurses on social media are calling “a joke” and “pathetic”.

The Independent Panel, set up to try and resolve the pay impasse without a winter strike released a series of recommendations today on pay and safe staffing to the New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the 20 district health boards.

Voting closes tomorrow (May 25) on a month-long secret ballot to decide whether NZNO’s DHB members will strike on July 5 and 12 – if the DHBs do not come up with a revised offer that frustrated and stretched nurses are ready to accept in ratification meetings in June.

Nurses posting on social media are describing the much anticipated panel pay rise recommendations as “insulting”, “a joke”, “shabby”, “pathetic” and “shocking”. Many are reiterating the need to strike and others are saying the DHBs’ revised offer needs to be at least double figures – and up to 18 per cent to catch up with the top of the current secondary teacher’s pay scale – and not the nine per cent over three years, plus lump sum, the panel has recommended.

NZNO has also given a thumbs down to the panel’s pay rise recommendation with Cee Payne, NZNOs industrial advisor, saying after years of low pay rises it was understandable that frustrated nurses wanted to push beyond the 2-3 per cent a year threshold.  “We are absolutely behind our members in wanting to do that – nursing deserves more.”

NZNO’s submission to the panel said in the union’s view the “appropriate range for a registered nurse or midwife should sit between $64,300 and $80,000” – which is considerably up on the current five-step automatic pay scale, which starts at $49,449 for a new graduate and stops at $66,752.

Payne said the DHBs would need to beef up their revised offer beyond the panel recommendations if they wanted to get the deal over the line. “The appeal at the moment is a bit like weak soup – not very nourishing but will keep you alive.”

The panel recommended a $2,000 lump sum payment in lieu of back pay, a 3 per cent increase on June 1, a further 3 per cent increase on August 1, a final 3 per cent increase on August 1 next year, and for pay equity negotiations to be conducted during a three-year contract.

The last rejected offer from the 20 DHBs was for a two-year contract with a 2 per cent pay rise per year, a lump sum payment of $1,050 and the carrot of a possible pay equity settlement starting on July next year for the about 27,000 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants covered by the NZNO DHB collective agreement.

Payne and NZNO have given a thumbs-up to a panel recommendation for targeted funding – equivalent to 2 per cent of the national DHBs nursing and midwifery workforce annual costs – to boost workforce numbers to address safe staffing and workload issues.

The 20 DHBs are expected to use the recommendations – and NZNO’s feedback – to deliver a new offer to the union on Monday ready for it to be put out for ratification to members in a series of face-to-face meetings in June.

The panel’s chair Margaret Wilson said she was confident these recommendations, if agreed to and ratified, would  enable the DHBs and NZNO to address the underlying factors behind the pay and workload concerns of nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants.

Helen Mason, the spokesperson for the 20 DHBs, said it welcomed the report and would be carefully considering the recommendations over the next few days and using the report to develop its revised offer. “Nurses, healthcare assistants and midwives are highly respected and essential members of the health team. DHBs have always acknowledged the issues raised and have been looking for a pathway to address them.”

Payne says where the panel submissions fall short, in particular, is stretching the agreement term from two to three years; offering a lump sum rather than backdating pay to when the current agreement expired on July 31 2017 – nearly 10 months ago; offering no additional pay steps to the current five-step pay scale; and the pay offer not bringing nurses in line with the current top pay scale of the benchmarking profession – secondary school teachers – until 2019. With secondary teachers also seeking a major pay rise this year, Payne said this meant nurses would fall even further behind if NZNO couldn’t start negotiating again until 2020.

In last week’s Budget the Government set up a ‘Tagged Contingencies’ fund to cover wage negotiations and other financially sensitive initiatives, with an extra $46m for the rest of 2017-18 and an additional $360m for 2018-19. With the DHBs well aware of the mood of nurses, it is expected they will be seeking more funding from the Government in the next few days in the lead-up to making the revised offer on Monday that they hope will avert a winter strike.

The DHBs started working on a contingency plan for possible strike action shortly after it was announced on March 26 that NZNO’s district health board nurses, midwives and healthcare assistant members had voted to reject the 20 DHBs’ revised pay offer.

Mason said today that the DHBs are committed to finding a settlement. “We also have an obligation to ensure patient safety and we’re continuing to work through contingency plans to maintain essential hospital services in case NZNO nurses and midwives reject our offer and go on strike.”

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