Strike action is on the cards in November by the vast majority of the country’s hospital midwives who are expected to reject a DHBs’ pay offer that treats them as “nurses by another name”.

Voting closes on Monday November 5 on the 20 district health boards’ pay offer to MERAS (the Midwifery Employee Representation and Advisory Service) with the union urging its members to reject the offer which keeps midwifery pay on par with registered nurses.

MERAS represents about 1200 of the country’s 1400 DHB employed midwives and has been fighting for recognition that midwives are not “nurses by another name”, but a different autonomous profession facing major workforce supply issues.

Jill Ovens, the industrial co-leader of MERAS, said from the feedback she was receiving directly and through the union’s Facebook page she ‘heavily predicts’ that members will reject the offer and vote to take rolling strike action from November 22.

She didn’t believe midwives had ever taken strike action at this level before and said it was not taken lightly as midwives were “very focused on working in partnership with women” and their responsibilities to the women and their babies.  Because the vast majority of midwives belong to MERAS, the July 12 strike action by New Zealand Nurses Organisation DHB members had caused little disruption to maternity services.

Meanwhile self-employed midwives are continuing to pursue a new contract that recognises their pay equity, co-design negotiations that concluded that a fair gross income for a self-employed midwife should be $241,000 for a caseload of about 40 births a year – more than double what most are currently receiving.

MERAS co-leaders Caroline Conroy and Jill Oven have told DHB midwives that based on the co-design calculations an experienced, full-time DHB core midwife should be earning about $130,000 a year. This is $30,000 more than if they accepted the DHB pay offer, which would see them earn about $100,000 ($70,000 in base pay plus about an extra $30,000 in over-time, penal rates for unsociable hours, leave entitlements and on-call allowances etc).

Ovens said for the last 30 years midwives by law had been an autonomous profession with a high level of responsibility but were getting exactly the same pay as registered nurses – which midwives supervise in maternity wards.  She said new graduate midwives also gain a four year degree compressed into a three year time frame (4800 credits with a 45 week study year) but are paid the same as nurses with a normal three year degree.

MERAS had sought a three per cent pay differential on top of the NZNO nurse and midwifery pay scale, which was rejected by DHBs.  A subsequent proposal for a retention allowance for midwives that included an additional $5,000 incentive for part-time midwives who agreed to go to 0.9 FTE or full-time, and an allowance for all midwives to encourage them to stay working in public hospitals, but this had been rejected by the Ministry of Health.

Ovens said the ballot underway asked members to also vote on a range of other actions including a ballot for rolling national strike action during part of each 12 hour shift starting from November 22. She said it had started discussions with DHBs over maintaining life-preserving services.  Meanwhile if members did vote as expected the union would issue a strike notice on November 7 for November 22 and expected to go into mediation at that point.

The union has also lodged and had accepted a pay equity claim which Ovens said the DHBs had accepted would be based on occupational groups not MECA so the midwifery claim would be negotiated in its own right using the material already analysed for the self-employed negotiations.

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